Perfectionism is a heavy burden to bear. Here’s how to help your child move away from and manage their perfectionism and to be less hard on themselves.
“She’s such a perfectionist…”
A phrase often said by people who, clearly, are not perfectionists. Said with exasperation and annoyance because, quite frankly, it’s annoying when people want things perfect.
But you know what is worse than others pushing their perfectionist tendencies on you?
Being a perfectionist.
Perfectionism is a heavy heavy burden to bear. It robs of joy, fulfillment, and sense of accomplishment because, quite frankly, it could have been better.
“It looks great!” you say. “No it doesn’t, that line is crooked, see?” he answers.
Perfectionism can start as early as preschool in response to both internal and external expectations. The Parent’s Guide to Raising a Gifted Toddler even goes so far as to say that it can result in an unhappy and unproductive child.
“You are special. There is no one in the whole world exactly like you, and people can like you just the way you are.” Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Here are some symptoms of the Perfectionist Syndrome:
- high levels of anxiety
- relentless self-criticism
- tendency to magnify imperfections (“I’m not good at anything”)
- Excessive criticism of others
- Fear of trying new things (fear of failure)
- Inability to share responsibility (wanting to do everything on their own)
- Feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, and
- Susceptibility to depression and feeling flat (especially after completion of some task).
Generally speaking, there are two types of perfectionists:
- those that work maniacally to achieve their lofty and often unattainable goals, and
- those who never begin their tasks because they are so afraid to fail or do something that isn’t perfect.
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Ways to help your child move away from unhealthy perfectionism:
My husband is a textbook procrastinating perfectionist and we can see that my firstborn son is very similar. We’ve talked long and hard about how his personality does lend him towards this, but we want to do all we can to help it from becoming a deeply ingrained pattern.
It can be crippling and a hard cycle to break. From this perspective and our research, here is our plan of attack:
1. Separate success from being “good” or “bad”
When a child does something successfully, there’s a tendency to say “good boy, well done!” so enthusiastically that your child begins to associate being “good” with doing things well.
It’s hard at first, I know, but instead of going overboard with generic “good boy” praise when they do something well try acknowledging their successes calmly, kindly, and with specific praise like…
“I’m so proud of you for tying your shoes by yourself. It took some practice, but you did it.“
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2. Focus on learning not performance.
Here is is… this is key.
Focus on a learning/growth mindset instead of a performance moment.
If a child feels the goal is how well they perform, then even accomplishing an extremely difficult task (but having a few snafus along the way) is failure.
Why do they do this?
- Because they didn’t perform it perfectly the first time.
On the other hand, if learning is the goal then they are more easily able to feel accomplishment even if they didn’t get it right.
- Because they learned something along the way and can do it better the next time round.
3. Teach persistence.
Children who are “paralyzed perfectionists” tend to want to give up at the first sign they can’t do something perfectly.
The truth is, they’d rather not do it than find themselves to be a “failure.”
My 3 year old, the one with perfectionist tendencies, will often try something once, then melodramatically fall down on the floor moaning, “I can’t!”
I calmly stand by and say, “You think you can’t. I’ll stand right here with you as you try again.”
One time it took him 20 minutes to put on his underwear and I nearly died, but he got it and was genuinely pleased with himself.
I praised his persistence and effort and he now does it on its own.
Encouraging persistence will be tedious for you because it’ll require persistence on your own part. Don’t take back tasks they are scared to perform. You’ll have to be disciplined yourself to stand alongside and encourage them.
4. Link failure to lack of effort, not skill.
Use language in your home that shows you value effort over performance.
Using phrases like:
- I’m proud of your effort
- Well done for trying so hard
- You’re still learning so it’s ok
- With more practice, it will get easier
- Hard work leads to success
- I don’t want you to go back and try again, I want you to keep going forward and learning new ways
Don’t use phrases like:
- That’s awesome, you’re a great…
- That’s good enough
- That won’t work
- You might be able to…
- Look at how well your brother is doing
Explain then reinforce that success is often a result of many hours, days, weeks, and years of effort. That success is never a given and it’s effort that counts.
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5. Give unconditional love.
Children, particularly gifted kids, may feel their worth and belonging in the family is tied to their performance or their intelligence.
Make sure your child knows they are loved because of their position in the family, not based on their performance.
Encourage them by telling them traits and characteristics you love about them, about who they are, not what they do. To help them with their perfectionistic mindset, separate what they do from who they are.
6. Push them out of their comfort zone regularly.
A child who is a perfectionist will likely only want to put their efforts towards things they feel they can excel at.
Fear of failure stops them from trying new things, and they forge a very small world where they feel safe. (Safe meaning they are not likely to fail.)
By regularly pushing them into new situations, new environments, and giving them new experiences you are – little by little – enlarging their world.
Create a safe place to “fail” and have learning be the goal, not performance in these new situations. By regularly pulling your child out of his shell, he’ll be more comfortable in the “unknown” and not as paralyzed.
“Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?” Brene Brown
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