"I just had a BAD DAY!"
It's always more dramatic when my child is exhausted. It's like the barrier comes down and real thoughts and feelings start to come out.
I was honestly shocked at his statement since we just spent the day at the zoo, played with a friend for two more hours, and then he went off to soccer practice (his favorite thing in the world).
In my mind, how could it have been anything less than amazing?
Ever been there, when your kid is just being a drama queen?
"You're joking right?" I asked.
(PS - not the best thing to say)
His tears told me he was decidedly NOT joking.
What in the world could have happened?
He proceeded to tell me of the stressful half-hour before we left the zoo. He didn't have time to go to the gift shop. The bathroom lines were long, so there was an accident. It was hot, and NO, the water fountain wasn't good enough.
The few important moments that marred a "perfect" day in his mind.
How often does this happen to us as adults? A few unexpected annoyances in the morning and we allow it to set the tone for the day. A weird interaction at work (maybe 10 minutes) and we let it worm its way into our minds and stress us out and keep us awake at night. A disagreement. A mistake. A misunderstanding.
Or? We simply envisioned it going differently and we feel disappointed.
As humans, we resist change. What we know is comfortable and safe, even if it makes us miserable.
For a perfectionist, you probably have an idea in your mind about how it's going to go, and if anything changes, well, it throws off your groove. Because it suddenly made your comfortable into the uncomfortable.
To your perfectionist child, the world is ending.
It's important to remember that their perspective on the world is quite different than ours.
But also? It's kinda the same. If shopping was a highlight of a trip that I took? I too would be totally bummed if I ran out of time. If I had to wait in a bathroom line so long that I ended up a mess and embarrassed and had to throw my own undies away so people wouldn't know what happened? Mega-embarrassment. If I was hot and tired and about to have to sit on a bus where a bunch of my friends all had nice cold drinks? LAME AF.
So if you put yourself in their shoes for a minute, you'll get it instantly.
But we don't do that. We tell them to calm down, just get it over with, you'll be fine.... and their feelings get swept under the rug.
It's easier for us to pull rank than to deal with the uncomfortable emotions of our kids. Truth be told it often triggers our own uncomfortable emotions we probably never dealt with. Otherwise, why are we so afraid?
More on that later.
My point is, when I stopped to think about what my kid was experiencing and talked about it with him openly, I could see that these small moments really had an impact. He felt shame, disappointment, and embarrassment, and he allowed it to color his entire day.
This is perfectionism at it's finest.
Humans don't like change. We're wired for it, but we resist it. It's a safety thing we have in the brain. If it's unfamiliar, we're wary of it and all kinds of red flags start going off. It's really great to have when we're in actual danger.
Perfectionists LOVE a plan. They love the control and the expectedness. They love being certain of what's coming and know its all going to go exactly the way it was supposed to.
Which never happens (like ever).
But we think it's gonna. So we bank on it. And then when unexpected changes come up (inevitable) we freak out. It's uncomfortable, we don't like it, and we turn on a lot of cues that signal how uncomfortable we are.
---> Which is what you can look for in your child.
You see these signals in your kid every day, and - if you're like I was - you have no idea they're connected to this idea of low self-worth, not being good enough, and trying to prove something to the world.
Today I want to help you identify the sneaky ways perfectionism can show itself in your child so you can not only understand WHY they're acting the way they are, but so you can help them get past it and feel more confident and calm.
Below are three behaviors that can clue you in to this negative fixed mindset AND tools you can use to help them shift it.
Anxiety is a form of fear. If your child is anxious and worried all the time, let's be real - it can be exhausting and even embarrassing for you. Plus you don't know how to make it better. You GET IT because Lord knows you are a nervous nellie yourself (waving at you!), but you just learned to live with it.
Not only is it unhealthy for the body (cortisol is sky high 24/7), but it's keeping your child from reaching his/her full potential. Being afraid ALL THE TIME means you are feeling relieved just to make it through the day unscathed. You survived!
In a child, this can show up in obvious ways - nervousness, tears, verbally saying "I don't want to" or "I'm scared."
But other more sneaky ways may be at play here too - not sleeping at night, tummy aches, overly sensitive or emotional, always sick, headaches, apologizing too much, wanting to stay home, or asking for lots of lights on at night. (My kid basically sleeps on the sun and still asks for a flashlight)
They don't know how to explain the feeling. Think about it - if you didn't know what "nervous" or "anxiety" means, how would you even describe it?
Watch your child closely. Is he/she having any of these other symptoms? Does it seem like you're having to do so much just to help them be comfortable?
If so, fear not! Many have survived it and overcame it, and so can you.
Here's what you can do:
I know you're already waiting on them hand and foot because they're a kid. And I know you've been trying everything to make them feel better, only for it not to work, and you eventually get exasperated and just give up. Been there.
This takes massive patience, but THIS one thing alone will help their feelings shift faster and more effectively --->
Sit and listen to them. Let them pour out their little hearts and tell you everything that is going wrong and exactly why its so horrible and life is over. Ask questions to pull out even more fears.
I'm serious. Be brave about it.
This sounds terrifying, but isn't it true that we all just want to be heard? Especially when the world isn't quite right and we need someone else to know it and talk us off the ledge? It's easy to just tell them "you'll be fine, go to sleep" (I mean, I still do it) but they're left alone with their fears and no one to guide them.
We all need this. It's what our closest friends are there for. So we can be our crazy neurotic selves and not be judged. You are that person for your child. And I know you want them to be telling you things when they're older. This is how.
Listen and ask questions. Get on their level. Validate every little emotion and fear. Let them know they are okay.
It won't take as long as you think. They just need permission to feel their feelings in a safe place and to know that what they feel matters and is okay. Where else do they have this in the entire world?
The other nite my kid got so mad about dropping his toothbrush in the sink that he yanked the faucet handle and it broke.
(I know. And he's only 6)
The fallout in my house from first-grader imperfections is still rough sometimes. I don't know why he got so angry with himself, but it happens often (which is why this business exists and why I wrote this book to help myself and others).
There's nothing wrong with feeling frustrated or expressing it (with boundaries obviously so they don't break your house). The problem comes in when they're frustrated with themselves instead of a situation.
Situations happen. Things you can't control. Plans go south, people flake, unexpected shit happens. Understandably, we get a little miffed or put out about things from time to time. Circumstantial frustration is normal.
But being frustrated with yourself? That's just straight up self-hate because it never ends. We replay that tape in our head of how stupid we were or how incompetent we are over and over and over again.
Not giving ourselves the grace we'd give others, beating ourselves up for doing less than extraordinary, and putting ourselves down about anything is straight perfectionism.
Would you be mad at your child for not doing the thing you failed to do?
Would you be so unforgiving and judgmental?
Would you berate a young person for failing at something?
Of course not.
But we do it to ourselves every day. And it's toxic.
If your kid is being hard on him/herself, it needs immediate attention.
Watch them and see when they get frustrated. Is it with the situation or is it with themselves?
Here's what you can do:
First and foremost, wait for them to chill out. Direct them as you need to (we beat up our pillows, not our sink fixtures, for example), but allow them (like in #1) to feel whatever they feel. Don't try and help them just yet.
When we're angry, we don't want someone throwing solutions at us or telling us to feel better. Personally it just pisses me off. Give me my space to feel my feels.
So, notice and assess once he is calmer. And then start asking questions. You may need to dig in a bit to help you understand what's actually happening.
Why she is upset and what happened (in her words) are great starting points. Keep going. The goal is to get them to eventually realize that they are angry with themselves. This is where you can start to change their thinking into positive self-talk.
For example. We'll use my broken sink situation.
Buddy, why were you so upset in the bathroom?
"I kept dropping my toothbrush. It made me mad!"
Why did it make you mad?
"Because I just kept trying to do it and it wouldn't do it right!"
Ok. So you were frustrated you couldn't get it to do what you wanted.
(*Interrupting here to point out that the problem will often be totally irrational. Let it be so. Go down this rabbit hole with them and allow it to be absurd. Help them to name feelings, behaviors, and other concepts they may not have words for.)
That's annoying for sure. I know when I can't get something to go exactly right I can get frustrated too.
(I give some example here) Do you think that makes me a stupid person or a bad person because I have to keep trying?
(Looks at me like I'm crazy) "No!"
Of course not! So you don't have to feel bad about it either when it doesn't work. It's ok that it doesn't go right the first time. Or even the 10th time. We all mess up all day long. It's ok.
AND it's ok to be frustrated about that. But I don't want you to get mad at yourself because you didn't do anything wrong. You're great, no matter what mistakes you make. It doesn't change how I think or feel about you.
(.... and so on)
Reinforcing the idea that their BEHAVIOR is extremely separate from who they are is the goal.
Another hallmark of perfectionism is the person who can't handle clarifying questions. They're already on edge worried if they're gonna get found out as truly not being good enough.
The only thing worse than our brains spinning this lie of inadequacy is the confirmation of it from others.
So we defend our position tooth and nail.
I used to be that person that didn't know how to have a disagreement. I would fight back even if I thought I might be wrong because deep down, I was defending my worthiness. If I was wrong, that meant I was unworthy and unlovable.
If anyone questioned my position, I thought they were questioning me as a person, and I didn't know how to even consider I might be mistaken. I researched, I read the books, I only spoke up if I knew I had my facts straight. Every discussion felt like an attack or a confrontation.
Needless to say I didn't have very many deep conversations. There was no room to converse with me about anything.
If your child is defensive, it's the fear of being wrong, the fear of being "found out", and the fear of being not good enough all rolled into one explosive response. It's a protective mechanism.
And it comes from a feeling of being unsafe.
Here's what you can do:
Your goal is to start building trust. Even if you can't think of anything you did, it doesn't matter. Your child doesn't feel like he/she can trust you and its unsafe. Don't take it to heart - there's no reason to beat yourself up.
How do you build trust?
- Transparency and honesty. You are their example. They will mirror what you do (not what you say - sorry!). Take stock. If you need to apologize, do so. Reset the stage for open communication. A great way to do this is to hear them out when they're confessing what they did and talk it out instead of getting raging mad.
- Actions have to match your words. Are you saying one thing and doing another? For example, maybe you say you want to spend time with your child but then you spend the whole time on your phone ignoring them (when you know they're old enough to get it that you're mentally absent).
- Be open to feedback from your child. This can be tough, but the ability to look at ourselves can make all the difference. You're not perfect and neither are they. If you're honest, you don't have it all together and every day is like a giant experiment. Be willing to apologize to them. A relationship is a two-way street.
- Remember they're their own person. Separate from you and probably really different. Stay open minded to what they say and do. Be aware of anything you might be pressuring them to be like. Listen to them and read between the lines.
Creating a safe environment is as simple as thinking about what makes YOU feel safe.
- Do you feel safe if you have someone always questioning you, yelling at you, or telling you how you did it wrong?
- Do you feel safe if any time you're honest about your feelings, you get shut down?
- Do you feel safe if you ask for help and you just get told to do it yourself?
- Do you feel safe if you're left alone to fend for yourself when you have no idea what you're doing?
Put yourself in your child's shoes.
These three behaviors can clue you into the negative mindset that your child is dealing with. Rest assured, 99% of the population does not know how to adjust this way of thinking. Our society tends to make it worse.
You are the biggest asset to your child in helping them change this now. The great part is, once they learn how to do it, they'll be able to do it their whole lives, which means they have the capacity to turn ANY "bad day" into a great one.
These are life-long skills.