Is your kid a stressed out little ball of nerves?
Does he get anxious when he screws up, spills milk, cant' draw it exactly the way he wants, or can't tie his shoes just right?
Is she so scared of messing it up, she doesn't want to try at all?
Lots of kids want to be perfect at everything the first time and they get frustrated when they can’t.
They often become so disappointed in themselves, they start to believe they aren’t good enough.
Lashing out, crying, stomping off.
Throwing things or starting a fight with a sibling.
Hiding. Giving up.
...Meanwhile, you're at a loss.
As a recovering perfectionist and a mother of two, I get it.
It wasn't that long ago that I was lost about what to do with my first-grader who had meltdowns after the smallest mistakes. He'd burst into tears, stomp off and get mad that he couldn't already be great at something new.
When I found out this was happening at school in front of the whole class, I dug into the real problem...
- He didn't know it was okay to make mistakes.
- He thought he had to be perfect to be liked.
- He based his value as a person on his accomplishments.
Bottom line: Anything less than perfect created so much anxiety, he would sometimes scream and actually hit himself for not getting it right.
And it didn’t just affect him. It impacted our entire family.
What would set him off next and how do we help?
You and I know that no one is perfect. But it's difficult to explain that concept to kids, right?
I've spent the last three years working on all this and what I found was a concept called growth mindset.
There are three simple tenets to this work:
- We learn by making mistakes and making a mess.
- We must celebrate those mistakes and messes if we are to instill in our kids the notion that learning is fun. (And it really is.)
- Screwing up makes us better humans.
Those facts changed my life and that of my kids.
And now I’m on a mission to help you change your own and empower your kids.
The cool thing is that negative thoughts are completely reversible. You can help your child change their mindset now. It's relatively simple.
Here's 3 strategies you can implement at home:
1. Focus on efforts and progress.
Being imperfect doesn't mean we don't aim for excellence. It doesn't mean we give up and say "oh well" and settle for less than our best.
Excellence means you like what you’re doing, you feel good about it, and you gain confidence by trying harder and getting better. It's motivating and has no bounds to how far you can go.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, focuses on finding the mistakes, no matter how great it's actually going. It's focus is an unattainable goal, pushing you to overwork yourself for the approval of others. It's damaging.
If you consider yourself a perfectionist in some areas (I'm recovering!), chances are good your child has been watching you put high expectations on yourself. They learn by watching what you do, right? So it's totally normal that they'd strive for your approval, especially through their accomplishments or trying to be perfect themselves.
Before you start beating on yourself and thinking "Crap! I've ruined them!" please know that:
1. That's what I did for years, so you're not alone. Hint: it doesn't help you or them to dive into guilt. We are simply repeating patterns WE were taught. We didn't know (how could we?)!
2. This is easily fixable, and it's truly not your fault. There is no damage done here. Everything is going to be fine.
Instead of saying what we commonly use to praise our kids like:
You’re so smart
That’s perfect (confession: I STILL catch myself saying this one!)
You’re so good at _____
You’re a natural
Focus on their efforts, tenacity, resourcefulness, and commitment instead. Say things instead like:
You tried really hard!
You never gave up even though it was hard
You have such a positive attitude
You’ve really improved on _______
What a creative solution to that problem
I like that you’re not afraid of a challenge
You thought of that all by yourself
I’m so proud of that choice you made
Here's why: If you only encourage your children to do what they’re good at, they’ll be afraid to take risks and learn new things. They either think they’re amazing or terrible and nothing can change it. The belief that smarts or skills are 'fixed' qualities means they’re less likely to take on challenges, risks, or try to improve.
If they’re not already good at it, failure only reinforces the idea that they lack the ability, there’s nothing they can do to get it, and they lose all desire to try.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting our children to know how great we think they are. Just focus on progress & effort instead of the end result.
2. Not Yet
When your kid gets frustrated that he can't do something, gives up and stomps off, slams doors and yells at himself (is that just in my house?), you have a prime opportunity to change his thinking.
End that statement of "I can't do this!" with one word: YET. I can't do this YET or I haven't achieved this YET changes the belief into thinking you can improve and you can reach your goals.
(It's totally an annoying-mom move, but it WORKS. I find a teeny little bit of satisfaction in those moves for all the times my kid had a tantrum on the floor of Target and I had to haul him out to the car)
This one takes practice and time. If your kid is like mine, they might come back at you with "prove it!" or the defeatist "LOOK, it's true!" Which is another chance for you to drill down and help them out.
Wait until they're calm (maybe you too) and feel ready to problem solve. Trying to reason with anyone while they’re set on being angry is useless. Let them have their upset moment, and when they’re ready, you’ll get much better results.
Make a plan together, step by step, brainstorming how they could get better at this one thing. Hang it up somewhere they can see it and remember their goal to work on it. Step back and let them decide how and when they take this on.
For example: “I can’t kick the soccer ball straight!”
Can turn into these steps to improve:
1. Set up a big target I want to hit. (The garage door, a giant net, something easy)
2. Practice hitting the target every day for 10 minutes.
3. Keep track of how many times I hit the target every day.
4. Each week make the target a little smaller or farther away.
5. Ask dad (my coach) to watch me and give me ideas about what else I can do.
6. Keep going until I can hit the size target I want 5x in a row.
Now you’re child has a plan, steps to take, measurable improvements, and people to support him. If he’s really stuck, you could always look for ideas on YouTube. Let the internet be your friend in finding answers to things you don’t know.
Gently reminding your child that excellence doesn't happen overnight but requires mistakes and practice helps them get back to trying again with renewed self-confidence.
3. Be the Example
Your perfectionist kid unfortunately thinks you're perfect.
While it might feel good, you can relate to the feeling of being around someone who you’ve put on a pedestal. You seek their approval, you push yourself to do it just right so they like it or hope it will be good enough. You want to be noticed by them and you don’t want them to know that you’re human.
It’s actually kind of miserable if you think about it.
You are your child’s idol, the person with all the answers, and the one who she wants approval from the most. They watch what we do even when we don't think they know. Their little sponge brains are taking in your every move.
And as much as we want to be incredible amazing parents, we’re going to mess up. In our house, it happens before they’re 3 years old. I could tell you the exact moment I knew I’d blown it and that was probably something they’d be talking to a therapist about one day.
“BUT I’M THE PARENT! I’ve got to have my shit together!” Is what most parents think and feel. We fear that we ourselves are going to drop the ball if we’re not perfect and raise our kids exactly right. I get it. I read alllll the books about how to do it all. I was so scared of messing it up, I thought I could prevent it by reading enough how-tos.
Think again about that person you idolized. Your boss, a leader of some kind, a relationship you wanted. Eventually when we get close enough, we can see that they ARE human. They aren’t perfect like we thought. They’re just like us. When they voluntarily share their own mishaps and human-ness, the bubble might pop for a minute, but ultimately they gain so much more of our respect.
Your child does not respect you because she thinks you are perfect. So let that go, and start being human. Talking about your own mishaps and screw-ups (use your judgement) actually normalizes mistakes and makes them seem like a regular part of life.
It’s also really important not to criticize yourself or be negative towards yourself in front of your child. Again, they’re watching! You model behaviors they cant help but notice and copy. If you notice a mistake, correct yourself right in front of them.
Show them you love yourself like you want them to love themselves, imperfections and all.
Try these with your kids at home. Just like anything worth doing, these don’t magically work overnight. But they do work a lot faster than you'd expect.
Eventually, they'll start to understand and embrace imperfections and take the pressure off themselves. The best part is that once you and your child learn these skills, you will use them forever to continue to feel better and better about who you are and what you are capable of.
Goodbye fear, stress, depression and constant worry. For the entire family.