It can be heartbreaking to hear a child say, "I can't do anything right."
It can be heart-wrenching to hear a child say to themselves, "I can't do anything right."
Does your child have impossibly high standards for themselves? Do they worry about disappointing their teacher, push themselves to the breaking point or internalize failure as something immovable within themselves? In a recent study of over 1,000 children ages 8 to 11, researchers found that nearly 80% showed perfectionist tendencies—suggesting that this impulse to make everything "right" is more common in kids than we might think.
As parents, we want to have high expectations for our kids, while also helping our children accept the "imperfect" and not be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are how we grow. But for kids who have a tendency toward perfectionism—or who get angry when they make mistakes or feel frustrated when something isn't "correct," getting the message across that it's okay to mess up sometimes can be tricky.
Here's how parents can teach kids to be less afraid to make mistakes.
What does perfectionism in children look like?
Researchers have identified three types of perfectionism:
1. Internally Driven Perfectionism
This child's perfectionism stems from their own expectations for themselves. They're highly motivated and likely to get upset if there is even one mistake in their work.
2. Externally Driven Perfectionism
This child's perfectionism is driven by external forces. They believe that their parents and/or teachers have extremely high expectations for them. They're concerned that if they don't do their best, then their parents will be disappointed in them.
3. Mixed Perfectionism
Children in this last category are a combination of the other two types. They are both hard on themselves and believe that their parents/teachers have high expectations for them.
Of course, having high expectations for a child isn't inherently bad. Past research has shown that if parents have high expectations for their children, then their children tend to perform better in school. However, when those expectations are tied to affection and warmth, then the child comes to believe that their parents' love hinges on their success. It raises the stakes for the child to the point that they link failure to irreversible damage to their relationship with their parents.
Many children who are perfectionists are likely to have perfectionist parents. If you see your own child picking up on your perfectionist tendencies, don't be hard on yourself. It may be overwhelming to try to do everything "right" as a parent—but when you make a mistake, acknowledge it, learn from it and move on. Just as a child can pick up on negative traits, so too can they pick up on positive strategies to mitigate them.
Perfectionism in children is more common than we may think
In a recent study, researchers in Spain sought to understand how each type of perfectionism was linked to school anxiety. They found that Mixed Perfectionism was the most problematic category with the most severe implications for school anxiety. Internally and Externally Driven Perfectionism were both linked to school anxiety as well, although to a lesser degree.
In their sample of 1,815 children ages 8 to 11, nearly 80% of the children fit into one of the three perfectionist categories. Given how common it is for children to feel internal and external pressure to perform, it is vital that we reflect on how to ensure that they feel supported.
The positive side of perfectionism
Perfectionism isn't always a bad thing. It has been shown in past research to be linked to better performance in school. Children who are perfectionists have been shown to be highly motivated, have strong problem-solving skills and have high self-efficacy—meaning that they tend to believe that they're likely to succeed when they confront an obstacle or task. However, these benefits depend on two key factors:
1. A child needs to be self-motivated. Their perfectionist tendencies can't be a result of external pressures from teachers or parents.
2. A child's self-talk and thought patterns need to be motivational rather than self-deprecating. If a child is constantly telling themselves "I can't do this," then it'll be impossible to stay motivated. If they tell themselves that they can do better, then they'll push themselves to improve in a positive way.
How parents can help perfectionist children
1. Be mindful of how you react to your child's mistakes. Do you signal your disappointment in your body language or in what you say to them? To help them approach difficult problems, try saying, "This is really tough! Let's see if there's a way we can figure this out together." Reminding them that you're there to support them is essential.
2. Pay attention to how you praise your child. Specific, process-oriented praise reminds children that mistakes are an opportunity to learn, rather than a sign of failure. When a child works on a puzzle, instead of saying, "You're so smart," try saying, "I love how you tried so many different combinations of pieces!" Not only is this much more specific, but it also refers to the process of problem-solving. Praising intelligence, on the other hand, can lead children to believe that their success hinges on a trait. When they eventually fail (and they will), their failure will threaten their view of themselves as smart. They'll be less likely to take on challenges and less likely to persevere when a task is difficult.
3. Remind your child that your love for them is unconditional. This is especially important for children whose perfectionism is externally driven. They may need reminders that even if they don't do well, you'll still love them.
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