From Crying to Trying: Tools for Managing Perfectionism

It’s 11 pm and the homework battle soldiers on.  You’re standing in the door frame, trying to convince your 13 year old daughter that it’s time for bed.  She has spent the last 6 hours preparing for her science test and the best thing she can do now is rest, but she won’t close the books.  Your sweet, stressed, bleary eyed girl is positive that if she sleeps all will be lost and her quarter grades will be unrecoverable. Sound familiar?

What about a homework match of a different kind? 8 pm and you can’t get your son to even consider looking at his math worksheet.  “It’s too hard!” he screams as he runs laps around the dining room table. “I can’t do it. I’ll never get it right. I’m stupid everyone thinks so. I hate this,” just before he collapses on the floor in tears.  Two seemingly opposite issues with one potential culprit: perfectionism.  One child, driven by her desire to score perfectly on a test, one won’t stop for anything.  The other, so overwhelmed by the potential assault to his self-worth that he dare not begin. After all, if he doesn’t try he can’t fail, right?

Because perfectionism can seem so entrenched in our children’s core beliefs, no matter how we try and convince otherwise, it can be exhausting to help reduce the underlying worries that drive the need to be perfect. Below are a few ideas to help parents build resiliency and slowly shift kids from crying to trying.

Build Resilience

Protection is a natural instinct of all parents; it’s also a kind and emphatic reaction to the pain of another.  As children get older, parents go from protecting their children physically to protecting them emotionally.  You may find yourself watching them teeter unstably toward the top of the stairs, to watching them teeter unprepared toward a Spanish final, perhaps with the same inclination to scoop them up to save them from impending doom in both instances.  This desire curtail a child’s pain is particularly true if we have children who tend to feel their emotions intensely, like those who tend toward perfectionism.

Interestingly, the way in which a parent carries out their protective duty has the capacity build  resilience.  Protecting a child in these moments means helping them just enough so that they can help themselves.  Building resilience takes a delicate balance of soothing pain through validation and acknowledgment of feelings, which can then be followed by shared problem solving.  This combination teaches children both how to calm fiery emotions, and how to begin to face life’s imperfect moments for next time.

Avoid Avoidance

The best way to build resilience is by allowing your child to face their fears.  By exposing them to reasonable and age-appropriate adversities, while providing gentle guidance and supportive coping strategies, children will begin to learn that they can manage difficult situations.  Of course you will be there so that they can learn to reach out for help when needed, but overcoming challenges is the best way for people to internalize that they are strong and capable enough to handle anything that life throws at them.  The idea that you can get knocked down, get back up, and ask for help when needed is the essence of resilience.  Avoidance as a coping skill may work in the short term to immediately reduce anxiety and distress, but it will likely reinforce the idea that not being able to be perfect means they shouldn’t try at all.

Break It Down

Well, what if it is really too much for them?  If your child is having a hard time, break down the task into simple steps you know they can handle.  Instead of “go clean your room,” try “put your shoes in the basket.”  That way, they can be successful in small increments and feel less overwhelmed with the process.  If they are very upset about a grade, validate the feelings, focus on the parts that did go well, and talk together about the things they may be able to change in the future.

Make Failure a Good Thing

Letting your child “fail” seems like the opposite of what you are supposed to do as a parent. Aren’t you supposed to help them succeed?  Well yes, but maybe it’s time to redefine success.  After all, what is a more important, having the strength and character to handle anything life offers, or getting everything exactly right first time?

Sara Blakely, Creator and CEO of Spanx, explains in this video how she grew up with nightly discussions of failure at her dinner table as a child, which helped her reframe the classic notion of failure  as a bad thing.  Rather, recounting her failures became proud moments for which she received high-fives and praise.  This gave her an opportunity to explore the “hidden gems” in each failed attempt, i.e., the lessons garnered from trying, easily missed if not for the effort itself. Precisely when learning becomes about trying and growing rather than outcome alone, it is easy to see how the immense pressure of perfectionism can fade. Perhaps this would be a fun tradition to try at all our dinner tables?

No Matter How Many Times I Tell Them It’s Fine To Just Try, They Still Freak Out.

I often have parents think about the messages they are sending their children, overtly or covertly.  Are the children allowed to make mistakes?  Many times, the answer is “Yes, I tell them all the time it is fine to try but they put this pressure on themselves!” Sometimes, perfectionism can be closely linked to self-worth, so the grown-ups need to help with building up self-esteem before the children will let go of their ideals of perfectionism.  Find activities and ways to increase self-esteem that are not linked to the project your child is fretting about can be helpful.  For example, make a list of all of the things each of your children is great at, and turn it into a nightly story that you read each night before bed.  For an older child, find small positive things to causally praise throughout the day so they know you notice their wonderful attributes.

How Do I Handle My Own Worries about Perfection?

This is perhaps the hardest part.  When a child becomes upset so does a parent, because our emotions are often closely wired with the feelings of those we love. Use this connection to power your empathy, and validate your child’s feelings about just how tough their failure was to them. However, be aware of your own emotions when you feel the inclination to begin allowing them to avoid age-appropriate situations that may result in failures or imperfections, as you are taking away opportunities for building resilience.  Remind yourself that the more they see you believing in them, the more they will believe in themselves, no matter the outcome.  Plus, if they learn to work through difficult situations now and tolerate distress with your loving support and appropriate guidance, think how much better suited they will be when they find themselves facing the challenges of adult life. Find strategies for managing your own worries in these times, whether it be taking a walk, creating a mantra for yourself, or just moving to the bathroom for a few moments before coming back to work through the hard stuff with your child.

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