Dealing With A Child’s Perfectionism; What Parents Wish They Knew Earlier

Dr. Fran Walfish Answers Your Questions

Q:  Dear Dr. Fran, how do I get my over-achieving 9-year-old to relax a little, to realize that it’s okay to be imperfect? She remembered she forgot to do her homework while brushing her teeth for bed, I said “no worries” and that she could do it then. She starting crying and saying she does everything wrong (her automatic response when anything goes wrong.) Two days ago she got an 88 on a math quiz and again started crying because she thought she was a failure even though I told her I was still proud. I have never put any emphasis on her grades, nor have I ever expected perfection from her. Help!                  -Cheryl L.

A:  Dear Cheryl, you sound like a warm, flexible, and loving mother. First, let’s be sure it’s perfectionism your 9-year-old is dealing with.

Could it be she fears her teacher’s disapproval and anger? Does her father react when she fails with frustration or disappointment? Is there peer pressure in her class when other kids ask: “What did you get on the test?”

If the answer to these questions is “no,” then she may be a self-imposed perfectionist.

Are there other areas in her life in which she supremely organizes (or attempts to) her environment? For instance, is her artwork filled with repeated patterns of colors, shapes, and figures? Does she line things up in categories of color, size, or height? Does she dress herself neat as a pin, or “without a hair out of place?”

The bottom line is your daughter needs empathic narrative from you. The key is your tone of voice and body language when you say the following. Be sure to have genuine compassion in your voice.  Say, “You know, Sweetie, I think sometimes it’s hard to be you.  You’re so hard on yourself.  You don’t even give yourself a chance to misstep.” Then, say nothing more.

Watch her to see if your message seeps in. You should see her relax a bit and take a deep breath which is her way of letting go of some of the anxiety that keeps her wound up tight. The easier she can be on herself, the more she will be able to tolerate imperfection in others.

We can’t prevent life’s inevitable letdowns and disappointments. The best we can do is equip our children with coping skills to deal with disappointments.

Each time you let her wrestle with her own self-disappointment you give her an opportunity to grow. Remind her that no one is perfect.  We all make mistakes. And, we all need to accept ourselves— flaws and all.

Q:  Dear Dr. Fran, my wife and I both come from troubled families.  We are expecting our first baby. What are the most important things you can offer us to do right by our new baby?           -Robert E.

A: Dear Robert, congratulations to you and your wife. Here are the top five things parents wish they knew earlier.

1. Separation anxiety comes from two root causes.  One, either the parent (usually mom) is over-attached and does not nurture the separation process.

Or two, mom or dad is “there,” but  not accessible (detached or distracted) to the child so he or she feels emptiness.

Mom needs to know she is okay without her baby and the child needs to know he or she is okay without mom.  Consult a child development specialist if the attachment or separation goes off track.

2.  Never fight with your kids about what goes into their bodies or what comes out. I cannot tell you how many parents get stuck in two developmentally crucial areas—eating and pooping. That’s why girls get stuck with eating disorders and the boys get stuck in the pooping disorders. They are both anxiety-based, but quickly become control issues where the kid feels over-controlled by the parent and, in the end, those are two body function control areas that the parent cannot win.

3.  Encourage your wife to nourish and fortify herself with individual time. Take a walk, listen to music, sit with her feet up and read a magazine. Do whatever makes her feel good and nourishes her. Get enough sleep, eat well, and have a confidant to talk to who will listen empathically without judgment. She needs a person to talk to also. You do, too.

4.  Every child is an individual and unique and parents need to adjust their expectations to each child’s capacity.

For instance, if you have a kid with learning disabilities and fine motor weakness, your expectations of him doing handwriting work may be different from one of the kids who may not have the same weakness. You’ve got to adjust.

Don’t expect your kid to do the adjusting, it’s the parent who needs to do the adjusting first and then your child will come to you to meet you in the middle.

5.  Being a parent is, perhaps, the most difficult job in the world. Why do we do this?  In the unconscious mind there’s probably some thought about survival of the species.

I really think, though, most people want to turn the clock around and “do it right this time.” They are trying to correct the wrongs that were done to them by their parents.

Sadly, they either unconsciously repeat it without having walked that self-examination path or—the mistakes that were done to them they fix— but they make new ones they regret. The answer to doing it right is a lot of work on one’s self. The better we know ourselves the better we can impart clearer messages to children.

 Send questions to franwalfish@gmail.com. Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent at www.DrFranWalfish.com. Related Stories:

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