7 ways to help a perfectionistic child

Is your child a perfectionist?

Do they put more pressure on themselves to succeed than you do?

Does he become hysterical when he misses one question on a test or doesn’t make the highest grade?

Does she collapse into tears when she strikes out at bat or misses a catch?

Does he always seems to be beating himself up about something?

If you have a child that is hard to motivate and who could care less about grades or hitting a home run, then this might seem like a dream come true.  A child that actually cares about their performance?  How wonderful!

But the parent of a perfectionist knows that there is a great deal of concern about the amount of stress and pressure that this child puts on himself.  These children tend to have a skewed vision of success and hold impossibly high standards for themselves.  They are driven and committed , with little patience and even downright frustration for siblings or friends who do not pursue the same standards of excellence.

Since our society places a great deal of importance on both academic and extracurricular success, you may find that perfectionistic tendencies are actually exacerbated at school and in sports activities.  However, this is more than a child putting their best foot forward and being the best they can be.  This is a child that has unrealistic expectations of themselves and who has great difficulty handling mistakes of any kind, much less failure to win top honors.  The persistent drive to be perfect at all times, sets a child up for constant worry and disappointment.  In addition, he rarely has down time when he can relax and be himself  without striving to meet performance expectations.

Where does this perfectionistic drive come from?  Brene Brown in her excellent book entitled The Gift of Imperfection, notes that her research indicates perfectionism is at it’s root a desire to please others.  It is based in a feeling of never being good enough and always striving for reassurance.

What practical steps can a parent or educator do to encourage and support a child that is a perfectionist? Here are a few:

  • Evaluate the messages that you give both directly and indirectly.  If you are frequently acknowledging the high grades, first place trophies, or being the best on the team to others, then you are encouraging the child to only feel worthwhile when they measure up.    Make sure that you praise and recognize the effort and the energy put forth to succeed not just the end result.
  • Re-frame losing as an opportunity to learn.  Even when a child succeeds, note the energy involved.  “Wow, your hard practice paid off!”
  • Help the child with unrealistic and unhealthy thinking practices.  Perfectionists tend to think in extremes.  “If I win, then I’m a winner and perfect.  If I lose I’m a loser and stupid.”  Help them discover the place of authenticity, “Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I’m always worthwhile no matter what.”
  • Don’t protect children from mistakes.  Instead help them to see the learning and opportunities in failure.  Be open and honest about modeling the mistakes that you make and how you handle them.  Teach them ways to handle disappointment and failure in a positive way.
  • Make sure the message that “you are enough just as you are” permeates all of your interactions so that children don’t feel they have to earn your approval through their actions.
  • Look for the humorous and light-hearted moments in life. Engage in some activities where the child does not have to perform or be the best.  Instead schedule time for things that are fun, relaxing or require a new skill.
  • Point out examples of people who tackle disappointment and failure in their own lives, yet are ultimately successful.  Watch movies and read books with characters that are good role models.

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