by Amy Smith
Discovering one mistake on a school paper leads to a meltdown. A few wrong musical notes at the recital bring a flood of tears. A poor grade on the report card seems like the end of the world. Sound familiar? Is your child a perfectionist? While a few isolated incidents like this may seem harmless or even humorous, perfectionism carried to extremes can lead to anxiety and hold your child back from real success in life.
When Perfectionism Become Unhealthy
It’s important to have high standards at school and at work— to be reliable, knowledgeable, diligent and good at what you do. As a parent, you want to model for your child the benefits of hard work, high standards, and accuracy in academic work, artistic endeavors, and even mundane chores. However, high standards can morph into unrealistic perfectionism in kids. An excessive desire for perfection can cause a host of stresses, including:
● fear of failure
● fear of trying new things
● fear of losing standing in the eyes of parents, teachers or classmates
● procrastination of difficult tasks
● difficulty making decisions
● stage fright
● social anxiety
● headaches (or brain fog)
● poor sleep
This kind of perfectionism is marked by worry, anxiety and a distinct lack of pleasure in the task involved. Perfectionist kids are so obsessed with achieving perfection that they can’t enjoy the actual subject they are learning or the music they are performing. And, besides being unhealthy for a child’s mind, absolute perfectionism doesn’t usually translate into better academic results. There is actually no benefit to being a total perfectionist.
Failure Can Be a Friend
The most important message to communicate to your perfectionist child is that failure and mistakes can have a positive effect. Although no one enjoys messing up in the short term, that failure can help your child in the future by showing them that the goal was unrealistic, where they need to put in more effort, the places in which knowledge or skills are lacking, or providing direction for new and different efforts in their studies or practice. Everyone fails at some point in life. Learning how to handle that failure as a kid will be an invaluable lesson for years to come. If your child can learn to recognize that a mistake really isn’t a huge tragedy, if they can learn to make mistakes as signposts for where continued work is needed, and to see the humor in a mistake and eventually even laugh at any goofs, they will be a stronger learner and a better worker for it. Tell a few stories of your own failures and mistakes. Your child will be able to smile at their former self, eventually leading them to glimpse the amusing side of their own missteps.
Becoming Your Own Competition
After your child makes the first step of seeing that mistakes aren’t completely terrible, emphasize the idea of competing only against oneself. Don’t compare them to siblings, classmates or yourself, and discourage those comparisons, too. Instead, ask your child to assess their progress and aim for improvement, rather than total perfection. Get them to beat their last time, last score, last grade.
Sit Back & Relax
Finally, remember that only some areas of life require goals and measures of achievement. It’s important to balance academics, musical performances, and competitive sports with other activities that are enjoyed for their own sake, without the potential pressure of perfectionism. Hiking, visiting and playing with friends, volunteering with charitable organizations, caring for a pet, cooking, drawing, painting and playing music recreationally can all provide stress-free fun for a change of pace from the activities that might trigger perfectionism. Add some mindfulness and relaxation techniques daily to help your child reduce anxiety and separate from the hustle-bustle of goal-oriented tasks.
Amy Smith is a writer specializing in family and parenting, and also teaches English, Latin, and music at a private school. She lives with her husband and five children on a small homestead in rural Pennsylvania.