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When Your Child Is A Perfectionist

Apr06

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My nine-year old daughter is a perfectionist.

This past six week marking period at school she got her first ever B. And didn’t make the “A Honor Roll.” She made the “AB Honor Roll” and had a little certificate to bring home that said AB Honor Roll on it. She tore it up and made a new certificate that was identical except said A Honor Roll, and then hung it up on the fridge.

When I called her out on the fake honor roll certificate, she stomped up to her room and slammed the door. There was a lot of crying.  She pulled up her grades on the school’s website to dissect every single thing she had done in the class for the past six weeks. And right there she saw, the one non-A grade that pulled her average down.  I think most kids would see that one grade as an unfortunate anomaly on an otherwise perfect record.  She saw it as a black mark that completely obliterated every other grade.  She fell onto the couch, face down, “I am just so dumb!”

It hadn’t occurred to me before this that perhaps being a perfectionist had a negative side. It’s hard to find anything negative about someone who works very hard to get good grades, has never been in trouble in school, serves on the student council, never misses a volunteer opportunity at the nursing home, and is a nationally-ranked athlete. She seems happy, previous example aside, and is entirely self-motivated. If I could bottle her drive, I would make a fortune selling it to the parents of teenagers who are in the spring semester of their senior year.

Perfectionist Child

She worries about things that she needn’t worry about.  The what if’s rattle around in her head.  What if I fall during a competition? What if I forget my words during a speech? What if I don’t get a good grade? What if, what if, what if….

I know from experience that telling her not to worry doesn’t help. Or telling her that she will do fine doesn’t help, because then her mind goes to the but what if I don’t? I always try to remain positive and say things like As long as you worked hard and tried your best, that is what matters.  So far, it has done nothing to change her mindset.

And so my default response now when she says something like, “But what if I fail?” is to answer, “What is the worst that can happen?”
“I don’t know! What if I do?”
“What is the worst thing that can happen?”
“I won’t get a 100!”
“And what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t get a 100?”
“I won’t get an A.”
“And what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t get an A?”

It will go on and on, usually she will laugh and get the point before we get to “What’s the worst that can happen if you are homeless living in a cardboard box?”  There have been times it has gone that far, where she truly believes that every small misstep will result in some huge failure down the line, but usually she is able to stop herself before we get to that point. She holds herself to very high standards and almost always meets them, however what happens when she experiences a “failure” is what concerns me.  The tears and the drama while learning to do a back handspring, for example. She cried every single day with frustration until she finally was able to do one well.

It is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand I am constantly telling several of her brothers to apply themselves at their schoolwork, that their grades matter, that they are throwing away their brains. I mean all of those things when I say it to them. But somehow my daughter has taken all the words I direct to the boys and internalized them in a different way. It makes me want to throw my hands up and say, “They are just grades!” (Meanwhile, I silently throw daggers at her brothers, over her head, to drive the point home to them that I am NOT TALKING ABOUT THEM AND THEIR GRADES!)

There is a difference in my mind between a child in elementary school and a high-schooler who is just barely passing a class and saying, “Duuuude, a C is passing.  Everyone else’s parents are glad they are passing.”   Because you know what happens when your high-schooler says those words to you?  You turn into your own parents, that’s what happens.  Suddenly the words, “I don’t care about everyone else!” come flying out of your mouth faster than your brain can register what your mouth is saying.

Raising a Perfectionist

I was discussing this with a friend who pointed out to me that maybe she isn’t a perfectionist, she is disciplined.  It is true that my daughter works hard at things she wants to be good at. I love that about her–that she is willing to try new things and she will practice and practice until she is successful at them. I guess my wish really is that she didn’t beat herself up when she doesn’t do well on something, because inevitably that’s what happens in life. I wish that for her, the process of learning something new wasn’t so fraught with anxiety.  To her there is no grey area, no pretty good, no great, it is either perfect or a failure.

Being a perfectionist and being disciplined seem to be tightly intertwined.

I have told my daughter that it is okay not to be perfect.
She looks at me, “But why would I want to be less than perfect?”

I don’t have an answer for that.

Has anyone else dealt with this?  Do you think that there is something that could be done to stop children from being perfectionists? Or, is it something we should even want to change? Can we change it or is it just a part of their personality?

About the author

Chris Jordan

http://notesfromthetrenches.com
Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.

Yes, they are all hers.

No she's not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.

Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That's why her youngest is almost 6.

Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

If you would like to submit a question for Chris to answer publicly, please do so to adviceforparentsoftweens[at]gmail[dot]com.


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13 Responses to “When Your Child Is A Perfectionist”

  1. Juliette Apr 07 at 4:17 am Reply Reply

    No personal experience of this, but Mindset by Carol Dweck is an interesting read on this topic. 

  2. Becky Apr 07 at 7:36 am Reply Reply

    I am your daughter.

    The tears over failure. Oh my. And that’s just the ones you see. If she’s like I was then there are so many you don’t. Moments when your heart drops into your stomach and you want to throw up because you got an answer wrong.

    I still have those moments but they are getting much better. I was put on medication for a time but stopped because it didn’t really work.

    The thing that helped was having my own children and see my oldest (now two) struggle with the same problems. So now I’m persuading her that it is ok that she forgot to brush her tongue or that she missed putting her napkin in the trash.

  3. Isabel Kallman
    Isabel Apr 07 at 11:44 am Reply Reply

    I was like your daughter when I was a tween/teen, Chris.

    I’ll never forget riding by myself on the NYC subway, sobbing because I got a 90 on a test instead of 100 as if it was the end of the world for me. Two grandmothers originally from the Caribbean asked me what was wrong. They were visibly concerned about me. When I told them, they started laughing and shaking their head. They clearly had the perspective I was lacking.

    I think there is a difference between being a “Perfectionist” and “perfectionism.” I am still a perfectionist in that I strive for excellence. However, I don’t think I suffer from perfectionism any longer. Perfectionism is “a propensity for being displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards.” It no longer negatively affects my quality of life and that I think is the distinction. :)

    And that came with time and age and perspective, and after a lot of tears.

  4. Christina Apr 07 at 11:56 am Reply Reply

    My husband is a teacher and I work in a field that is peripherally related to education. He and my work have taught me a lot about what is called skills-based learning. Essentially, we need to focus our kids on improving themselves. So maybe when she freaks out about the B you can focus on how she’ll improve for next time. Part of the theory of skills-based learning is also about teaching kids to compete with themselves instead of everyone around them. This learning style manifests a lot in sports and PE these days but it definitely applies to all parts of learning and raising kids.

  5. Liz Apr 07 at 12:09 pm Reply Reply

    Chris, I have read your personal blog for a long time and adore reading about your kids. I have often wondered if it is difficult for your daughter to be the only girl with 6 brothers. I wonder if it leads to an only-child mentality, like, “I am the only one, and people are focused on me, so I have to do A,B,C right or people will be disappointed.” I wonder if she feels she has to excel in areas that females are valued for in our society, i.e. being “good”. It’s something that no matter how hard parents try to treat their kids equally, they pick up on the expectation cues from society. It’s gotta be hard being the only one sex in a large family.

  6. Leslie Apr 07 at 6:04 pm Reply Reply

    I have worked with college students as a higher education administrator for the last seven years.  Most often I am working with student leaders, so I interact with many students like your daughter.  I would just encourage you to continue having those challenging conversations with your daughter (the “And what’s the worst that can happen…” thing).  Eventually, that little game will become a part of her inner voice and will help her cope with life’s disappointments (from external or internal sources!) more realistically when she is on her own at college and beyond.  Research shows that most college students who seek counseling services on campus do so for issues related to anxiety (15 years ago the top complaint was relationship issues).  Keep giving her the skills she needs to manage her own anxiety and you’ll be giving her a great resource!  

  7. LMo Apr 08 at 1:19 pm Reply Reply

    I, too, am just like your daughter. It has a lot of benefits–I’m extremely successful by comparison to my peers, and am living the life my parents always wanted for me–however, it also has its drawbacks. Notwithstanding the fact that I have my life well under control, there is always something to worry about. I’ve sought counseling throughout my life, usually related to significant issues. But to be honest, the thing that has helped me the most is the (very slow) process of maturing and gaining perspective with age. Having suffered 30 years worth of successes and defeats, I can now identify which ones really matter. Although, I think I would have been aided immensely if my mother had taken the approach you take–what’s the worst that can happen? So, I guess what I’m saying is–good work! I’d be willing to bet that your daughter has a very successful and happy life ahead of her–she will find the balance in time.

  8. MR Apr 08 at 2:10 pm Reply Reply

    Why wouldn’t you want to be perfect? Because perfection is an ideal that nobody can ever live up to. And being happy is more important than being perfect.

    Perhaps in addition to looking at the “what happens if you fail?” aspect, it might also be a good idea to delve into, “what does perfection mean to you?” and “what makes you happy?” Talk about your greatest achievements. I bet most of them are not the things that simply came easily to you where you excelled from the start, but rather are the things you struggled with most, where you failed and clawed your way over the finish line. Those are what define us. Those are the times most of us look back on with pride. So, if she needs to have a brief freak out of how awful she is to work harder next time, then maybe that’s ok, she is just driven. But, if it is something she will beat herself up for over and over and regret and it will be a constant black mark on her internal scorecard… That’s when it is destructive instead of helpful.

    I am a perfectionist and have spent a lot of my adult years trying to get past that fear of failure. It was bad enough for me that I wouldn’t try things unless I knew I could be good at it. I have since tried to adopt the sportsman concept – you do your best and then sit back and see what happens. That has helped me have a no regrets attitude and learn to accept not being perfect. Most of the time I now actually look for things I can try and fail at, so that I can have that chance to improve and get better. Because that’s where you learn about yourself.

  9. Lauren Apr 09 at 12:27 am Reply Reply

    I would suggest looking into the work of Carol Dweck and the idea of fixed vs. growth mindsets.   As a high school teacher I often see kids who come to high school with their entire identity based on being “smart” and when they hit a point at which they don’t achieve at the level they want to achieve at, one of two things happens.  Either they display the growth mindset (along with resiliency) and they work harder with the (correct) belief that increased effort = increased achievement.  Or they figure they’ve reached the limit of their smartness and they shut down or just assume that they can’t get any smarter so why try?  So often, I think kids whose identity is wrapped up in being “smart” have been told they are smart and when something happens to challenge that identity it can be debilitating.  Focusing on her effort to achieve the goals she has, rather than her good grades is one way to help her shift her focus.  Instead of trying to convince her not to try for perfection focus your and her attention on how she is going to do better next time.  Praise the effort, not the result.  She is pouring over individual grades so maybe acknowledge that she didn’t do as well as she wanted to and then ask/help her to set up a plan for doing it better next time.  As she makes progress in her plan point it out — “Wow, you set the goal of learning all your multiplication tables and look how hard you worked to do that!  Your hard work paid off and you felt ready for that quiz — what will you do next to get to your goal?”  Someone above mentioned Standards Based Grading.  The goal of that is to shift the conversation from “How do I get a better grade?” to “What do I need to do to understand better?”  So valuable if we want to create a generation of lifelong learners.  Our kids are receiving a lot of messages about their intelligence and the importance of grades and we adults are overcoming the idea that intelligence is a fixed quantity.  It isn’t, research shows you can grow your intelligence and helping kids understand that is so important. 

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Apr 09 at 10:11 am Reply Reply

      Thank you SO much for this. Really learned so much and agree with what you’re saying. Lauren, I hope you come back and stick around for our parenting book group discussions where a lot of the time our discussions go down these paths. Will definitely look into the Carol Dweck book as a potential pick to put to vote in the future. :)

  10. Cheyrl S. Apr 09 at 1:55 pm Reply Reply

    While this doesn’t sound like your daughter’s issue, I’ll put it out there. My perfectionism and need to have perfect grades was a defense mechanism. I was painfully shy/anxious/depressed. I could use my grades and brains like a shield. Didn’t get invited to a party? I couldn’t go anyway because I had to study. No friends? Too busy and they’re jealous. Plus, I couldn’t be a complete waste of space (how I felt) since I was so smart, right? RIGHT?

    It’s taken many years and therapy and anti-dpressants to pull me out of that nightmare. Now that I have a daughter of my own, I try to impart to her that as long as she does her best, that’s the important part.

  11. Jennifer Apr 13 at 9:05 pm Reply Reply

    This post really hit home for me, too.  I was so your daughter, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can work to help my daughter develop skills for coping with that anxiety should she turn out to be similarly-minded. I agree with other commenters that the “what’s the worst thing that will happen” line of thinking is a great tool.  

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