How to Help Your Little Perfectionist
I was a perfectionist as a kid. I was the third of four and a bit anxious around the edges. I was the “quiet” one of the family – the one who played alone for hours on end and had not just one invisible friend but an entire invisible school. I had an intense need to please others by way of showing just how capable I was.
Before you start shaking your head wondering what kind of parenting triggered this perfectionist-pleaser behavior I should make one thing clear – it was all self-imposed. I wanted to do things just right, and I feared getting things wrong in school, especially when the whole class was watching. In fact, I would often flip ahead and memorize the passage I would read out loud in an effort to avoid making a mistake. It was part of my personality, and it took a long time for me to kick perfectionism to the curb.
It came as no surprise when my daughter slipped into perfectionist behavior. But I was ready for it. I knew how to help her reframe her perfectionism so that it wouldn't take control of her.
Many kids go through phases where they want everything to be just right. That's a very normal part of child development. As kids strive toward independence they attempt to take on new tasks through trial and error and that can lead to frustration when things don't work out according to plan.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, can become maladaptive for kids. Perfectionism can lead to anxiety, intense frustration and can cause kids to avoid trying new things out of fear of failure or embarrassment.
When kids struggle with perfectionism, parents need to intervene.
Know the signs.
Perfectionists tend to struggle in a few key areas. Be on the lookout for these red flags.
- Becomes anxious, angry or frustrated about making mistakes.
- Procrastinates in an effort to avoid potential failure.
- Frequent meltdowns or tantrums when things don't go according to plan.
- Constantly rewrites or erases constantly to improve homework.
- Fearful of failure or embarrassment.
- Overly cautious and spends excessive time on small tasks.
- Avoids trying new things.
- Negative or pessimistic thinking.
Talk about perfectionism.
Little perfectionists know that they are struggling, but they don't necessarily know why they become so frustrated with mistakes. Talk about it when your child is calm. I often talk to young children about how their brains work. Just today I talked to my son about synapses and negative thinking. I told him that he has the power to rewire his brain simply by reframing his negative thoughts (worries disguised as pessimism) with positive thoughts. At seven years old, that made perfect sense to him and we practiced replacement thoughts.
Tell your child that sometimes our brains tell us that things need to be absolutely perfect, but that's not much fun. Trying to get everything right all the time causes us to avoid trying new things.
Teach positive thinking.
It can be hard to reframe negative thinking when you're highly self-critical, but teaching your kids to flip the script on their negative thoughts helps them get into a positive thought habit.
Practice replacing negative thoughts with positive ones by making a list of the usual suspects (the thoughts that often weight them down) and creating positive counter statements to boss back those negative thoughts.
Set a good example.
Do reach for your phone to check Google each time your kid asks you a tough question? Don't! When we constantly have all the answers, we set really high expectations for our kids. No one has all the answers, and we need to model that for our little ones.
Say “I don't know, let's look it up together” when you don't have the answer. This shows that it's okay to not know the answers sometimes. Say it out loud when you make a mistake. Show your kids that even adults have to recover from mistakes.
Work though procrastination.
Perfectionists procrastinate in an attempt to avoid potential failure. They avoid tackling new tasks for the very same reason. Teach your child to set reasonable expectations to work through the tendency to procrastinate.
- Break down large tasks into manageable pieces.
- Use a wall calendar to mark when tasks should be done.
- Get in the habit of asking for a “work checker” to help edit tasks instead of rewriting over and over again.
- Practice setting priorities.
- Factor in time for breaks.
Avoid hyper focusing on the final achievement with your little perfectionist. Find your favorite part of the project and talk about that. Point out the funny part of a story or the wide range of colors used in a painting.
Perfectionists tend to seek approval on the end result. They think people measure them in black and white thinking. To help them learn to see the shades of gray, we have to begin by pointing out the little things that help them achieve their goals along the way.