Parenting a Perfectionist
Perfectionists can be driven to achieve, but they can also get tied up in knots over their expectations of themselves.
Clothes having to match. Toys arranged in neat rows. Outbursts over not being able to get a task right the first time. These behaviors can indicate to parents that they may have a perfectionist on their hands, for better or worse. Perfectionists have high standards. Perfectionists can be driven to achieve, but they can also get tied up in knots over their expectations of themselves. Psychologist Madeline Levine suggests in her book “Teach Your Children Well,” performance-oriented children “are so afraid of failing that they challenge themselves far less, take fewer risks and therefore limit opportunities for growth.”
How can parents recognize a perfectionist tendency in their child? And what actions can they take to help their child do their best without getting hung up on “best” never being good enough? A few experts and moms offer their advice.
Model Making Mistakes
The truth is, as adults we can also struggle with setting our standards too high for ourselves and our children. We may not handle our own failure well, unwittingly communicating a negative attitude toward mistakes. We can help our children by instead admitting our own behavior needs an adjustment.
“You don’t want to stress that children shouldn’t make mistakes in the first place,” says Dr. Wendy Grolnick, psychologist and author of “Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids.” “You want to have the attitude that mistakes are our friends. We learn from them,” she says.
Kelly Arabie, a mom of two, works to pass this attitude along to her kids. “The faith journey I’ve been on has taught me that life is very much a process and that I’m not going to be perfect as long as I’m living. It’s a gift I can give my children to be able to share that with them.”
Occasionally point out a mistake you made to your child. Talk about the outcome, that it didn’t derail life and that it doesn’t reflect poorly on you. Explain what are doing to correct the mistake or what you plan to do differently the next time. Let your child see you learn from your mistake.
This goes for owning up to imperfect parenting too. Allowing your child to let you off the hook for a mistake made toward him helps him develop tolerance and compassion toward others’ blunders. It can help him to understand that others will want to show the same compassion for his errors, and to be compassionate toward himself.
Focus on the Process Not the Outcome
Perfectionists tend to be most concerned about the end product. Oftentimes a perfectionist will do work over and over in an attempt to achieve a flawless result, but they miss the enjoyment of learning along the way.
Kathryn Johnson’s son, Alex, is a hard-working student who takes this approach. “I see him striving to do his best,” she says. “But it borders on constant dissatisfaction. He always thinks, ‘I can do better.’”
These children don’t always gain much for their efforts. A York University study of elementary- and middle-school students found that perfectionists didn’t score any better than their peers, but don’t tell perfectionists that. Their competitive nature only pushes them harder toward the goal of doing better than others. Of course, as Grolnick points out, our outcome-based academic culture isn’t helping them any either.
“There’s more competition than ever before. There’s more stress on grades and standardized test scores.
It is a set-up for kids focusing on outcomes.”
Parents can help by encouraging their child to recognize his growth and what he has learned from an assignment or task. Instead of asking ‘what grade did you get’ ask ‘what did you learn about today,’ or ‘what stood out from the unit you just completed.’
“I would like to see learning as a lifetime process and help my children to see that as well,” Arabie says.
It’s important for parents to talk about what they’re learning too. Children appreciate seeing that Mom and Dad, who they might think know it all, are still acquiring knowledge and skills.
A focus on outcomes also can cause an aversion to challenges. Perfectionists stick with tasks they’re sure to complete well, instead of delving into new territory. It’s up to parents to notice this behavior and assist their child in combating they tendency.
“The best way we can help our children welcome challenges is to encourage them to work just outside their comfort zone, stand by to lend a hand when needed, and model enthusiasm for challenging tasks,” Levine says.
Live With Limits
Johnson found it helped her son when she set limits for completing tasks.
“A lot of it was encouraging him to stop working on something,” she says. “We had to help him realize that at some point he’d wreck his work in trying to fix it.”
Letting go and learning to pick a stopping point have been central in his adjustments, otherwise, as she puts it, “where does it end?” Try setting a deadline for completing a task. Use a timer during homework.
Parents may also find their child letting natural deadlines speed up their work — procrastination can be common among perfectionists. For a procrastinator, chunk projects into smaller pieces and set mini-deadlines for achieving each of those chunks.
Perfectionists also need to learn to live with their own limits. This means acknowledging that the ideal in their head may not be possible in this world. A good phrase to teach a perfectionist
to say to himself is: “This is the best I can do for now,” promoting the idea that improvement is always possible.
Unconditional Love and Validation
Parents can inadvertently communicate that they value accomplishment and results, what Grolnick calls “contingent parental regard” by giving more attention when a child performs well, and less when they don’t. It’s easy to slip into when we want to praise a child for work well done, but it can work against us when the child associates the praise with being valued for what they do.
Let your child know your love is unconditional. Be vocal about it. Grolnick says parents should tell their kids, “You’re no less loved if you don’t do something perfectly.”
Arabie echoes this in how she talks with her children. She’ll tell them, “I love you for who you are and not what you do.”
It may take being specific, such as telling your child that it’s OK that they struggle in a certain area or that a B or C grade is just fine.
As you implement any or all of these strategies remember: Parenting any child, perfectionist or not, is an imperfect job done by imperfect people. Which practically makes each of us perfect for doing it.
Lara Krupicka is a freelance writer, mom to three girls and sometimes a perfectionist.