How to help kid perfectionists feel good enough about themselves and cope with the ups and downs of life.
Dear Dr. Borba,
My ten-year-old is first 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. She is a great kid, smart as a whip with an IQ in the ozone, and I swear I don’t push her. What should I do?
Sound familiar? I can’t tell you how many similar questions I receive from parents with kids who are perfectionists.
Of course we want our children to reach their potential and to excel. Of course we want them to get those great grades and succeed. But often kids feels so much pressure that they become obsessed to doing everything so perfectly to an unhealthy degree. And that can leave them feeling anxious, frustrated and worried most of the time.
Another problem with perfectionists is that they often put those pressures on themselves. “Will it be enough?” “What will others think?” “Why did I miss that one point?””I have to stay up later…I won’t get a perfect score!” “But it isn’t GOOD enough. I need to work harder!”
Because they’re never satisfied and always pushing themselves, they are often frustrated with their performance. Of course always wanting to be perfect to an extreme can take a toil on our children’s emotional health as well as disrupt their lives.If they keep up that push, push, push, never-good-enough pace, all that heightened stress can put them in jeopardy for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, migraines headaches, and even suicide. Perfectionists are also more at risk for emotional, physical as well as relational problems.
But let’s keep in mind that this isn’t just a “big kid issue.” Even preschoolers are beginning to exhibit this problem. We see this “I’m never good enough” concept especially in our gifted and talented kids. Here are signs to watch for:
Signs of Kid Perfectionists
~ Always comparing themselves to others; can’t stand coming in second place or doing worse than others; wants to be the best and anything less not good enough
~ Migraines or headaches, stomach aches, trouble sleeping, or other physical ailments before, after, or during a performance
~ Too cautious about trying something new that may be outside of his area of expertise and mean he may not excel
~ May put others down. All in an effort to be their best and make the other person feel less perfect – or inadequate
~ May put the same high standards on others
~ Worrying it won’t be good enough; or fears failure. Avoids difficult or stressful tasks; leaves work unfinished out of fear it won’t be perfect
~ Concentrates on the mistake instead of the overall job or how well he performed
~ Way too hard on himself; can’t laugh at himself or his own mistakes
Though some of our kids are just hard-wired with that inborn tendency to always push, push, push themselves to the max, max, max, there are things we can do. For instance, we can teach them coping skills so they can lower their stress and we can show them how to set more realistic expectations. And we can also take an honest appraisal by tuning into our own expectations and example to make sure some of that push they put on themselves really isn’t coming from us. Here are a few tidbits of proven parenting advice from my book to help you help your child survive, cope and thrive in this wonderful world.
1. Lighten the child’s load
Start by honestly checking his schedule: Is there any time for just downtime or play? Is there any of those activities that can be eliminated or reduced? Teach your child he can always go back and finish up an activity, but give him permission to just plain enjoy life. (You may need to remind him and chart that time into his schedule so she does take time to glance at the clouds or just do plain nothing for a few seconds anyway.) While you’re at it, do take an honest assessment at the classes, programs, activities, clubs, etc. Ask three questions:
Are they ones that stretch my child without snapping him?
Are they tailored to my child strengths and capabilities?
Does my child really need them all?
2. Teach her to be her own “time-keeper”
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. Then help her log her own time.
3. 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.
4. 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 his self-talk by teaching him to say to a more positive phrase that’s less critical and judgmental and more reality-based such as: “Nobody is perfect.” “All I can do is try my best.” “I’ll try again next time.” “Believe in myself will help me relax.”
5. Start 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 family mantra such as: “A mistake is a chance to start again.” Or: “Whether you think your can or that you can’t you’re right.” Then pick one phrase and say it again and again until your child “owns it.” You might even print out a computer-made sign and hang it on your fridge.
6. Teach “Take a reality check”
Perfectionists imagine something horrid will happen if they hit the wrong note, don’t hit the high beam, or don’t make the standard they’ve set for themselves. Your role is to challenge their views so they don’t think in such all or nothing; black or white thinking, and help them dispute the belief.
For instance: 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?”
Show your child the advantages and disadvantages of being a perfectionist. Explain what you can control verses what you can’t. Redefine success as not perfection, but excellence.
7. Watch your example!
Are you a perfectionist? Is nothing ever good enough? Do you berate yourself for every little thing?
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. Watch out! Your kids are watching!
Remember, the parenting goal is not to change your child, but to help her learn coping skills and expectations that will reduce her self-made pressure. Stress stimulates some kids, but paralyzes others. Tune into your child and watch how he or she responds to deadlines and expectations.
8. Get real about 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 artistic flair, his creative nature, or her musical pitch. Then monitor, encourage and strengthen those traits and skills so 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.
9. 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.
Tailor your expectations to your child’s natural nature and development. Temper any tendency to “push her harder” (perfectionist kids are their own best pushers). Those are the true secrets that help our kids reach their potential and utilize their gifts.
What are you doing to help your child or students feel good enough?
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.
You can also refer to my blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.
My new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World is now in print! I’ve spent the last five years researching and writing this book as well as literally flying around the world to find the best ways we can activate our children’s hearts. My goal is to create a conversation that makes us rethink or view of success as exclusively grades, rank and score and includes traits of humanity! It’s filled with common-sense solutions based on the latest science to help us raise compassionate, caring, courageous kids. It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching!