“I can’t do it!” “I’m not good at this!” “I hate my project!” If these phrases of frustration burst from your child regularly, don’t panic. There are many reasons children put pressure on themselves and several things you can do to help alleviate that pressure.
For one, says Thomas Greenspon, psychologist, marriage and family therapist and author of What To Do When "Good Enough" Isn't Good Enough: The Real Deal On Perfectionism, “We live in a society that that takes pressure to achieve as a normal way of living. Getting ahead seems to mean pushing yourself to the limits, and it means that even one mistake can seem to put success out of reach for good.” This win-lose culture, he explains, is one background element intensifying perfectionism in children. Perfectionists feel defective and unacceptable.
The good news? Parents can play a definite role in helping their children move beyond their perfectionism. But it’s difficult for parents to help their kids effectively unless they know what their children are experiencing. If you think your child may be a perfectionist or headed down that path, Greenspon offers these tips to help you build an environment of acceptance and help him make better sense of his world:
- Discuss what you are seeing with your child and ask her to help you understand what she is thinking. You could say, “I watch you being hard on yourself, and I wonder what you are feeling. When you make a mistake, do you feel like something is wrong with you or that you aren’t smart enough? Does it seem like someone will be mad at you?”
- Ask yourself if you might be contributing to the problem. Does he think you will be angry or that you won’t like him as much if he makes mistakes? Do you actually get angry with him when he makes mistakes? Share with him what your attitude is and let him know if you were ever in his shoes. Were you ever (or are you currently) hard on yourself?
- Tell your child what you appreciate about her, what you think her strengths are (be specific), and make sure these points are separated from what she can accomplish. She may be hard on herself, but is it also true that she is a hard worker, takes pride in her abilities, or makes good decisions? Is she simply nice to have around? If so, say so! All of this will help her to feel acceptance. When a child feels accepted, a mistake is just a mistake — not a sign of a potential character flaw.
- Talk with your child. This one seems obvious, but dialogue is essential, both to resolve problems and to help your child feel connected and part of a mutual community. When you talk with your child, as opposed to at him, he’ll feel not only feel accepted, but important.
- As a part of your ongoing dialogue, make sure your child understands that even though you want him to do well, you will love him whether he does well or not. Then, when you encourage him to improve, he knows it is not so that you will like him better in return.
Nobody’s perfect. Even as adults, we often forget that. We put undue pressure on ourselves and may unwittingly put in place high expectations for our children. When you slip up, let your child in on it. Even laugh it off. He’ll grow to understand that if his parents are only human, it’s okay for him to be too.