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Parenting a Perfectionist

Clothes having to match, just so. 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. And as 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.”

So 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. This can mean we don’t handle our own failure well and may unwittingly communicate a negative attitude toward mistakes. We may need to start helping our children by admitting our own behavior needs an adjustment (yes, we may be mistaken about mistakes).

“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.”

Kelly Arabie, a mom of two, works to verbally communicate the attitude that we’re people in process. “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.”

Be proactive about pointing 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 you’ll do 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 them helps them develop a tolerance and compassion toward others’ blunders. It can also help them understand that others will want to show the same compassion for their errors. Ultimately, you hope they’ll learn to be compassionate toward themselves.

Focus on the process, not the outcome

Perfectionists tend to be most concerned about the end product. Oftentimes a perfectionist will redo 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.’”

Unfortunately, these children ultimately don’t 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 a perfectionist that. Their competitive nature will only kick in to push them harder toward the goal of doing better than others. Of course, as Dr. 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 setup for kids focusing on outcomes.”

Parents can help by encouraging the child to recognize their growth and what they have 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 had a test on?”

“I would like to see learning as a lifetime process and help my children to see that as well,” says Arabie.

Which makes it important for parents to take their turn in talking about what they’re learning as adults. Children appreciate seeing that mom and dad, who they might think know it all, are still acquiring knowledge and skills. And they’re still enjoying the act of learning itself.

A focus on outcomes also plays out in an aversion to challenges. Perfectionists will 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 it.

Dr. Levine notes, “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.”

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 has been a big part of what she’s tried to communicate to him. And learning to pick that stopping point. 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 child who procrastinates, it can help to 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 themself is: ‘This is the best I can do for now.’ Inherent in this is the idea that improvement is always possible.

Don’t blame yourself

A recent study done by researchers at the Michigan State University Twin Registry suggests that genetics may play a greater role in influencing patterns of perfectionism than environment or upbringing. In other words, mom and dad, you’re not to blame for your child’s desire to do everything perfectly.

“One of the things I try to do is not blame the parents,” says Grolnick. “Because they’re in a setup. They’re pressured that if your kids don’t do it right, don’t do it early, be the best, they’re not going to have the opportunities that you want them to have.”

Grolnick states, “Beating yourself up is not a good idea.”

Validate the child for who they are

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 this 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.

Make sure you 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 okay 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 makes each of us practically perfect for doing it.

Lara is a freelance writer, mom to three girls and sometimes a perfectionist herself.

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