Parenting Solutions: Perfectionist (page 4)
Never seems to feel "good enough" about his work, appearance, or performance; can't stand accepting second place; is intensely competitive to the point of its being unhealthy; self-esteem tied to grades, scores, and achievement
The Change to Parent For
Your child learns to cope with adversity, is less afraid to try new endeavors, and develops a healthier view of achievement.
Question: "My ten-year-old is second in her class, and it makes her nuts. She stayed up until one in the morning last night memorizing state capitals. I worry that if she keeps up this pace she'll have a nervous breakdown. What should I do?"
Answer: First applaud her effort for trying to do her best. But set a limit on how late she can work. Explain that nothing horrid will happen if she isn't always the best at everything. Most important, tell her again that you love her for who she is.
Of course we want our children to reach their potential and to excel. But often a child feels so much pressure that she becomes obsessed to an unhealthy degree with doing everything perfectly, leaving her feeling anxious, frustrated, and worried most of the time. "Will it be enough?" "What will others think?" And because these kids are never satisfied and always pushing themselves, frustration and heightened stress put them at serious risk for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, migraines, and even suicide. Perfectionists are more at risk for emotional, physical, and relational problems.31 This isn't just a big-kid problem. Even preschoolers are beginning to exhibit perfectionist behavior.
University of British Columbia: Professor Paul Hewitt found that although all perfectionists hold unrealistically high standards for themselves and others, they differ in how they show their perfectionism.34 Here are the three kinds of perfectionists:
- The self-promoter. Always attempts to impress others by bragging or showing off her perfection. This one is easy to spot because a self-promoter can annoy others and be a real turnoff.
- The shunner. This child fears failing (and being less than perfect), so she avoids situations or events in which she may be less than perfect. (She doesn't feel she could be the star soccer player, so she avoids the sport; she worries she could never be as perfect a violin player as her friend, so she takes up cello.) This is common with younger children.
- The quiet sufferer. This child keeps her problems to herself. She can't admit failure to others. She would never ask for help because it means she may not be good enough.
One Simple Solution
Of course always taking the quest for perfection to an extreme can take a toll on a child's emotional health as well as disrupt her life. So pay closer attention and seek the help of a mental health professional if you notice any of these reoccurring and debilitating behaviors:
Eating disorder: The child's concern about having the "perfect" body leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with food and eating, including self-induced starvation (anorexia nervosa), obsessive-compulsive eating, bulimia, and restrictive eating.32
Depression: The child's concern about achieving and being perfect are so extreme that she has difficulty eating, sleeping, and concentrating, and may begin to withdraw; the child appears apathetic, is excessively irritable and sad, and may have suicidal thoughts.33
Signs and Symptoms
Here are a few common signs of children who are perfectionists:
- Is intensely competitive: is always comparing herself to others; can't stand coming in second place or doing worse than others; wants to be the best, and anything less is not good enough
- Suffers physical stress ailments: experiences migraines or headaches, stomachaches, trouble sleeping, or other physical ailments before, after, or during a performance
- Is unwilling to risk: is too cautious about trying something new that may be outside her area of expertise and that may mean she won't excel
- Is quick to anger: has tantrums, is easily frustrated, becomes angry when she errs or falls short of expectations
- May put others down: is motivated by the effort to be her best and make the other person feel less perfect—or inadequate
- May expect perfection from others: may put the same high standards on others
- May avoid or procrastinate: worries that what she's done won't be good enough, or fears failure; avoids difficult or stressful tasks; leaves work unfinished out of fear it won't be perfect
- Focuses on mistakes: concentrates on the mistake instead of the overall job or how well she performed
- Takes life too seriously: is way too hard on herself; can't laugh at herself or her own mistakes
- Is inflexible: approaches tasks with an "all-or-nothing" attitude; there is only one right way
- Is afraid to ask for help: doesn't want to admit she doesn't understand; feels that asking for help will be perceived by others as weakness or failure
Step 1. Early Intervention
- Figure out the reason. The more you can get into your child's shoes and figure out what's fueling her quest for perfection, the better you can head off the problem before it becomes overwhelming. Here are common reasons kids push themselves to be perfect. Check those that may apply to your child:
- Temperament: has inborn tendency and temperament you've recognized from your child's toddler days
- Insecurity: lacks confidence; has strong feelings of inadequacy
- Fear of humiliation: is afraid of being laughed at or made fun of by others; is easily embarrassed
- Poor modeling: copies the perfectionist behaviors of a sibling or parent
- Overemphasis on performance: experiences excessive demands for achievement from teacher or parent; has unrealistic goals
- Fear of losing approval or respect.
- Status as a trophy child: achievements and talents always on display
- Help her get a reality check. Show your child the advantages and disadvantages of being a perfectionist. Specify things your child can and cannot control. Redefine success not as perfection but as excellence.
- Look within. Are you a perfectionist? Go back over the list of perfectionist symptoms. How many of those apply to you? Beware: research shows that moms who are perfectionists or who base their self-esteem on their kids' achievement are more likely to have perfectionist kids.35
- Get real about her abilities. Don't try to turn your child into the "Superkid Perfect-in-Everything." Instead, be more practical about your child abilities and be honest with her. Start assessing and refining her natural strengths—her singing ability, artistic flair, or creative nature. Then monitor, encourage, and strengthen those traits and skills so that she doesn't try to push herself so hard in too many areas but instead narrows her focus and has a more realistic assessment of her talents.
Step 2. Rapid Response
- Lighten your child's load. Check her schedule: Is there any time for just downtime or play? Are there any activities that can be eliminated or reduced?
- Teach her to be her own "timekeeper." If she works hours on her writing but actually does a great job the first time through, set a time limit on how long she can work on a particular activity.
- Make sure there's time for fun. Encourage laughter and just sitting outside every once in a while and watching the clouds drift by. Teach your child she can always go back and finish up an activity, but give her permission to just plain enjoy life.
- Teach stress busters. Show your child a few simple relaxation strategies, such as taking slow, deep breaths; listening to soothing music; walking; or just taking ten and lying on the couch, to help improve her frame of mind and reduce a bit of that intensity—at least for a few minutes.
- Halt the "parading." I know you're proud, but stop putting your kid on center stage to always perform. It's all right on the soccer field or in a musical concert, but lower the curtains in your home. Do you reinforce her professions of greatness by agreeing with her? Do you encourage her by reminding her of other talents she's overlooked? Are you cheering her "know-it-all" attitude because you feel it is the sign of high self-esteem?
- Help your child handle disappointment. The inner dialogue of a perfectionist is self-defeating: "I'm never good enough." "I knew I'd blow it." So help your child reframe her self-talk by teaching her to say a more positive phrase that's less critical and judgmental and more based in reality, such as "Nobody is perfect." "All I can do is try my best." "I'll try again next time." "Believing in myself will help me relax."
Step 3. Develop Habits for Change
- Use children's literature. There are wonderful children's books you can use as conversation starters about the dangers of perfectionism, such as I'm Perfick! by Bernard Waber; Persnickity, by Steven Cosgrove, Will the Real Gertrude Hollings Please Stand Up? by S. Greenwalk; Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days, by Stephen Manes; Dreams and Drummers, by D. B. Smith; What to Do When Good Isn't Good Enough: The Real Deal on Perfectionism: A Guide for Kids, by Thomas S. Greenspon.
- Use a family mantra. One way to help your child realize that mistakes don't have to be seen as failures is to come up with a phrase to use as your family mantra. Here are a few favorites: "A mistake is a chance to start again." "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right" (Henry Ford). "You'll never make it unless you try." Then pick one phrase and say it again and again. You might even print out a computer-made sign and hang it on your refrigerator.
- Teach taking a reality check. Perfectionistic kids imagine something horrid will happen if they hit the wrong note, don't stick the gymnastics move, don't make the standard they've set for themselves. Your role is to challenge their views so that they don't think in such all-or-nothing, black-or-white terms. Help them dispute their belief.
Kid: "Nobody who ever got a B got into college." You: "What about your cousin Kevin, who even had a few C's?"
Kid: "I'll lose cleanup spot in the batting order if I strike out." You: "What about Babe Ruth? The year he hit the most home runs was the same year he made the most strikeouts."
Kid: "I know the moment I pick up my pencil I'm going to forget everything I studied all year." You: "That's never happened in your entire life. Why now?"
What To Expect By Stages And Ages
Preschooler Children as young as four and five are sometimes perfectionists, most noticeably when they first enter kindergarten, as they take on more responsibilities and worry about meeting the challenges.
School Age Intellectual and emotional skills expand, so kids are more aware of their shortcomings and can be very hard on themselves. Watch out for their setting unattainable goals. School-age kids can be hesitant to try new skills or games, fearing they won't be able to meet their own high personal standards or win the approval of others; they may become procrastinators. They may become self-critical as well as critical of others, so watch out for trouble relating to classmates. A core concern is meeting your approval.
Tween Tweens become more concerned about fitting in and about their appearance and weight. Watch out for anorexia and bulimia. (See Eating Disorders, p. 498.) Girls very often are perfectionistic about their body image.
Stress builds as homework dramatically increases.
One Parent's Answer
A mom from Kansas City writes:
My eldest daughter is such a perfectionist. She'd spend hours working on schoolwork or anything else to ensure it was absolutely flawless. I couldn't figure out why she felt the need to do everything to such an extreme when she pointed out to me that I do the exact same thing. And she was right! At that moment I realized what a poor example I was, always doing everything over and correcting her and basically sending the message, "You're not good enough." It was at that moment I vowed to lighten things up in our household and take time to have more fun. It's been a much harder task than I ever thought, and I know my daughter and I will always be overachiever, type-A personalities, but at least my daughter and I are learning to laugh more and not take things so hard—and the two of us get along better as well.
One Simple Solution
Stress Effort Rather Than Outcome
- Switch from praising the end product (the grade or goal) to acknowledging your child's effort along the way. "You put a lot of work into this."
- Acknowledge courage. "That was brave of you to try something you weren't sure of. Good for you."
- Praise attributes other than achievement. "Good for you. You took turns with your playmates."
More Helpful Advice
Being Perfect, by Anna Quindlin
Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism, by Thomas S. Greenspon
Perfectionism: What's Bad About Being Too Good? by Miriam Adderholdt and Jan Goldberg
When Perfect Isn't Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, by Martin M. Antony and Richard P. Swinson
Picture Perfect: What You Need to Feel Better About Your Body, by Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge
Too Perfect, by Trudy Ludwig (the "perfect" read-aloud for your school-age daughter)
What to Do When Good Enough Isn't Good Enough: A Guide for Kids, by Thomas S. Greenspon
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