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Do you have a perfectionist child? One that is unsatisfied with pretty much anything they accomplish? Sometimes even when they’ve done a good job? It’s sad to watch our kids missing out on the joy of creating art or music, playing sports or other competitive activities that could bring them such a sense of accomplishment.
Many kids with learning issues seem to struggle with this as well. Something about the fear of failure, mixed with anxiety and self-doubt leads our kids to continually be disappointed in themselves and their abilities.
From a teen son who drops out of soccer just when he makes it to All-Stars to an 8-year old who has to be taken out of art class each week because of tantrums and tears, perfectionism manifests in lots of different ways.
Signs of Perfectionist Kids
It isn’t so much the drive or desire to be perfect that defines a perfectionist child, rather their response to not actually being perfect. Some signs of perfectionism in children are:
- extreme reactions to perceived failures
- putting themselves down or highly critical of self
- unwilling to try new things
- a strong fear of failure
- hypersensitive to criticism
- tend to seek approval from others
- have rigid ideas of how things should be
- think that tasks should be easy or that they are easy for everyone besides them
Of course, not all kids will have all of these signs. Every perfectionist is unique!
How to Help Your Perfectionist Child
As in many parenting hurdles, there is a balance between pushing your kids and letting your kids sit an activity out.
Here’s how we have helped our perfectionist kids:
Praise effort rather than outcome. Research by Carol Dweck from Stanford University has shown what is called the Power of a Growth Mindset. Essentially, her study revealed that kids who were praised for the outcomes of their effort developed perfectionist tendencies while kids who were praised for their efforts (regardless of outcome) became more motivated to try. Read more about how to teach your kids about a growth mindset here.
Play games. There are so many life skills learned through the simple playing of games. Learning how to lose (graciously) is one of them.
Help kids set realistic goals or expectations. Encourage your perfectionist child to make an earnest attempt. We used a touch of consequence for our perfectionist son. He was to attempt each art lesson with a good attitude. He could modify his project with the teacher’s approval after making an earnest effort first. Shouting, crying or stomping out of the room resulted in a loss of privileges at home. Another idea is to suggest that a perfectionist student earns an 80-90% on school work. Then discuss the consequences of that outcome. Did the world come to an end? Probably not. Or teach them to prioritize which tasks they are going to excel in and which they can reasonably let lie a bit.
Help them see the benefits of making mistakes. Read the book Mistakes That Worked which is full of stories of mistakes that ended up being cool new inventions. Or The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, a humorous story illustrating that it is indeed okay to make mistakes.
For older kids, share this research that recently appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition that found that learning becomes better if conditions are arranged so that students make errors. Participants who failed at their first attempt to solve a problem, were better able to remember the correct way to solve the problem once taught the correct way to solve. Note: This is one reason why we love Teaching Textbooks for Math so much. Incorrect problems are corrected immediately for more meaningful learning!
Share your own struggles. One of the most powerful things we can do as parents is to be real and relational. That time the power was shut off because I forgot to pay the bill? Embarrassing for sure, but a great lesson in how adults make mistakes too.
Don’t give in to their perfectionism. Perfectionism will grow if it is encouraged. Despite your child’s tears and tantrums about not having things ‘just right’, they need to learn to live in a world where life isn’t always just the way they would like it to be. Setting boundaries with kids where possible is important.
What Do You Say?
I asked the members of the Homeschooling With Dyslexia Facebook Page how they helped their perfectionist kids. If you haven’t joined our group on Facebook, you need to do that! What an amazing group of parents.
Here are some of our reader’s suggestions for helping perfectionist kids:
- My daughter struggles with this. I just keep reminding her it’s called learning for a reason. It’s not called “knowing”.
- I took away grades for a while. My oldest was so worried about her grades she couldn’t learn. Once she figured out she enjoyed learning I slowly added grades back in.
- I remind them who we are striving to please (God) and His requirements (do it heartily) for work. I try to remind them and myself being a perfectionist is serving myself, not God!
- I remind her it is “progress not perfection.” And she isn’t supposed to be getting everything perfect, it is supposed to challenge her and she is doing great as long as she is improving.
- We struggle within our home. Unfortunately, it starts with me… Still working on it.
- Watch Disney’s movie Meet the Robinsons. It has a great message that failing is a good thing because it helps us learn.
- I didn’t do it on purpose but noticed the benefit after a while… We put him in a sport where he ended up failing more often than succeeding at first. I told him I was proud of him for keeping at it, and that I thought he was learning a valuable lesson, that failure isn’t the end of the world, you get back up and try again! But it was nice that it happened in something besides his schooling.
- My son’s speech therapist held the key. Whenever we saw frustration, she’d say “It’s OK to not get these right. You’re just learning to ___.” Or “When you’re first learning to ____, it can seem hard.” There are a bunch of statements like that, but you get the idea. I have to tell you, it’s changed everything and his progress is incredibly fast now.
- My daughter has been a perfectionist since kindergarten (now entering grade 3). It is such a struggle! What worked before was describing her learning like planting a flower. A seed doesn’t turn into a flower instantly. It requires lots of care over time. So does learning. The first time we introduce a concept is simply planting the seed. To really learn it she needs to give it time and energy every day. If she stops working on it, we need to start from the beginning. This has worked for spelling words, piano practice, math concepts, etc. HOWEVER, the more difficult part is how hard she is on herself. The emotional aspect of her perfectionism. This last year, with reading, she would get soo upset. So, our goal was mini reading sessions and we didn’t work on fluency or correct words. We only worked on not being angry at herself. I would reinforce her like crazy if she made it through 3 minutes of reading without any negative self-talk – regardless of how many words she got wrong!
How about you? How have you helped your perfectionist kids?
Fantastic piece of writing. We were introduced to Carol Dweck & growth mindset last year. We watched her Growh Mindset whiteboard as a family and my kids really resonated with our childres. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl9TVbAal5s
There are a few resources here I did not hear about before. I will make sure they are on my list to read and watch. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for this article, from a perfectionist that has a perfectionist daughter! My child with dyslexia is my most confident child, and my most naturally gifted learner is my withdrawn perfectionist who doesn’t want to try/fail. They are all wired so differently! I try to model failure for them by pointing out to them when I make mistakes and then telling them how I’m dealing with it. I have also had my perfectionist daughter grade her own math work for awhile because that took the pressure off of me using my red pen to mark on her paper. It has built her confidence that she is doing a good job and doesn’t need to stress about mistakes.