For many parents, getting children to do homework and study for tests is a nightly battle, and they would be thrilled to have kids who are self-motivated, hard-working, and very concerned about their success in school. However, the other side of the extreme can be just as difficult for parents, in a different way.
Some children are so worried about excelling at everything they do, in school and out, that they end up putting an extreme amount of pressure on themselves to succeed, and completely fall apart when they do not. Children who are perfectionists often have a skewed vision of what success means; they may become hysterical after missing only one question on a difficult test. They tend to have very high, even impossible to reach standards and a commitment to doing anything they can to reach those standards.
Although we are a society that places a great deal of importance on both academic and extracurricular success, skills that relate to the classroom or playing field are not the only ones that children need to thrive. Children also need to learn how to handle failure. Many parents believe that they are doing their children a favor by protecting them from experiencing failure, but what these well-intentioned parents fail to realize is that what they are really doing is preventing their children from developing the skills that they will need to cope with the multitude of mistakes and failures that inevitably arise throughout life.
Perfectionism can also be a concern because of its link to mental health disorders, such as eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and self-injury (popularly known as “cutting.”). Though it is difficult to establish direct cause and effect when it comes to perfectionism and such disorders, a tendency towards perfectionism should indicate to adults that a child needs some assistance in learning healthy coping skills. Even if a child may not suffer from a major mental health disorder, the persistent drive to be perfect at all times sets that child up for constant worrying and disappointment. In addition, when a child is always concerned with demonstrating perfection in school and related activities, she misses out on times when she can simply enjoy herself.
Although it may be hard to completely change a child’s perfectionist nature, there are many things that adults can do to help him find a better balance and not be so hard on himself. Consider the following ideas:
- Although the pressure to be perfect often seems to come from the child herself, evaluate the messages that you are giving to your child. Even if you tell your child that high grades or first-place trophies do not matter to you, if she hears you bragging about such honors all the time, she may feel a great deal of anxiety about continuing to bring them home. Your child needs to understand that your love is unconditional, and not based on how she does in school. Point out other ways in which she makes you proud, such as when she helps others.
- Keep the focus on the importance of learning new material or a new skill, rather than being the best. When your child brings home a perfect test score, say, “Wow, you worked so hard to learn that tough material,” rather than, “Great job, another hundred percent!”
- Address faulty or unhealthy logic in your child’s thinking. Perfectionists tend to think in terms of “all-or-nothing,” such as, “If I don’t get 100% on this test, then I’m stupid.”
- Let children make mistakes. Offer minor assistance and support if asked, but let children turn in work that is truly their own so they can get comfortable with constructive feedback. Allowing children to do their own work and make mistakes not only can decrease a sense of pressure on them to always present a perfect front to the outside world, but also gives them the confidence that they can succeed on their own without your help.
- Have a mantra in your home, such as, “Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is what you learn for next time.” Even better, come up for another word to use instead of “mistake,” such as “obstacle” or “detour.”
- Do not brush off school anxiety with comments such as, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll get an A, you always do!” Even though you may have good intentions, your child may interpret comments like these as adding more pressure to maintain his status. Instead, tell him that what matters is him putting in enough effort to learn the material, no matter what the grade is.
- If your child is spending too much time on schoolwork, set a time limit so that your child has to stop working and relax a bit. Explain the situation to your child’s teacher and ask for help with what you are trying to teach your child.
- The pressure to be perfect may stem from school (or other areas where perfectionism is exhibited) being the only place from where your child derives self-esteem. Try to expand your child’s notion of her identity by finding activities for her to participate in that do not involve scoring or competition – activities that simply exist to feel good and have fun. Be careful about over-scheduling, and make sure that you child has time “scheduled” to just relax.
- Find activities for your child where she will not be the best. Help her learn how to handle being in such a situation. Do not let her discontinue the activity because it is difficult or uncomfortable.
- Look for books and movies that provide role models of real people or characters who succeeded after a string of failures. Be a good role model yourself by not holding yourself to perfectionist standards and showing your child how you handle mistakes. Point out what you did and how you learned from it. Make sure that you are not deriving your own sense of worth only from your child’s accomplishments.