Friday, November 23, 2012

Dealing with Perfectionism

What is wrong with striving for perfection? You might ask.  Well, it can also be crippling to anyone that is so worried about attaining perfection they won't even try something in the first place.  It can also truly slow down artistic processes to degree that means virtually nothing is happening AND for kids who are learning, striving for perfection can bring the learning process to a halt.  I spent three years teaching kids that carry a "gifted" label and a label attached to a variety of learning disorders. Almost every one of them struggled with perfectionistic tendencies that became disabling at times - it is an innate tendency in some kids.

It is especially a very common problem among gifted children.  There are a few things parents can do that can worsen the tendency when it already exists, create a tendency toward perfectionism where one did not exist before, or conversely, help their kids try, and succeed or fail with grace.

If you have a child that is overly focused on perfection or doesn't like to try things for fear of failure, here are a number of things you can try that might help to at least mitigate the problem if not do away with it entirely.

Create an Environment Focused on Effort:

Make sure that you are focused on his or her efforts and "journey" as opposed to accomplishments. The most obvious way to do this is first to ask the question, "did you do your best?" If she wins and/or has a great success at something, ask, "did you do your best?" If she can honestly say she did, celebrate with her. If she says no, say, "why not?" Do the same if she fails at something. "Did you do your best?" "Yes" - well, lets have your favorite pizza for dinner then."

Other, less obvious ways to create an effort - focused environment, include:

Minimize Praise and Critique:

Instead of praising your child for accomplishments, ask about his or her feelings in regard to that accomplishment, "what do you think about your soccer team's win today?" Likewise, if your child has had a failure, "What do you think about what happened today?" If the answer is, "I did my best, but I don't know what happened" you are receiving an invitation to offer constructive feedback. If your child feels he or she already knows what went wrong, let him or her make the appropriate adjustments - or at least lead the conversation.

Instead of praising or critiquing your child for something done, simply notice it non-evaluatively, "I noticed you controlled the ball five times today during the game."  If he feels that was an accomplishment, he'll feel good about your statement. On the other hand, if he feels he could have done better, he might say, "yeah I know, I held back." Now you know how your child feels about it and you can respond accordingly.

As an example, at Alice's first TKD tournament, she wound up having to spar against a beloved friend.  She still dominated the field but did tell me she hadn't kicked as hard as she can when I asked, "did you do your best."  The kids wear lots of padding and the way points are scored is by kicking hard enough there is a resulting sound that the judges hear.  She may not have won anyway, and it was a good match but she didn't do her best.  At the same time, her reason for not kicking hard was a good one, "I didn't want to hurt my friend."  She and I were able to talk about how the padding protects everyone and of being competitors on the mat and friends off the mat. 

Praise and Punish only Effort and even use that sparingly

When critique is required, try to offer her the chance to come up with the alternative action or attitude that will be more productive.   You can also often put it on yourself or as a standard in society instead of as if it is a problem with her.  State what the problem is, "It really bothers me when the house is a mess." or "people don't generally like to be laughed at like that."  Follow that with what you need your child to do starting with "I," "Therefore, I need you to keep the house a little cleaner."  or with the society "Friends and other people are more likely to appreciate it you offer help when they slip and fall."  Then, invite her to be part of the solution, "How can we work on helping you remember to keep the house clean together?" or "What can we do to help you feel less inclined to laugh when some one else slips and falls?"

Make Sure She Has Examples of Success After Failure

Include Stories from Fiction and From History

"Meet the Robinson's" and its message of "Keep Moving Forward" is a great one. We also refer to the "Up From the Ashes" song and scene from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" at our house.  Both movies show an inventor failing AND succeeding.  How many times did Babe Ruth strike out versus his Home Runs? Apparently Einstein was horrid in elementary school.   Thomas Edison tried TONS of other options before coming up with just the right filament for the light bulb, or what about Alexander Flemming and his chance discovery of Penicillium?  Michael Jordon once said,

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." 

Share things like this with your perfectionistic child often.

Include Examples from Your Own Life

Share your most embarrassing moments with your kids - couched with something good that came out of it - a lesson learned, a friend made . . .  Do the same with all the failures you've had and can share in this same kind of light.

Include Examples from your Child's Own Life:

Your child didn't always know how to use the potty, couldn't always dress him/herself or button buttons etc.   Practice had to happen first.  Even if you have to dig deep, make sure your child knows he or she has been through this before.  Every child will have something you can point to that needed practice for attainment.  The skill of tying shoes, playing an instrument, dribbling a basket ball. . .

Offer Chances to Fail in Private

Give challenges at home you know your child can handle, but your child isn't totally sure about.  For example, you might offer a book your child will think is a little too tough and say, "but I really think you'll like this story. What if we read it together? You read it to me and if you get stuck you can ask for my help." (I did this with my own daughter to get her to try reading chapter books - now it is hard to find good books, at the right level, in her areas of interest fast enough!)  Then, if something IS a challenge just be supportive through it.  At the end ask, "Did you do your best? and How did that feel?"

When Failures Occur, Treat them as A Learning Opportunity

Seriously, when your child fails at something - celebrate it! "Woo-hoo, a chance to learn something - okay what is it, what did you learn, or what did we learn from this one?" Don't be so over-the top that it feels cheesy or you will look like you are being patronizing, but genuinely empathize with the disappointment, embarrassment, whatever and then say, "But you know, the good news is, I BET there is something to be learned here - that's the way the greatest scientists see it anyway."

Teach and Model Positive Self Talk
Let your kids see you make mistakes and respond to them the way you wish they would respond to theirs: "Oh my gosh! What a mistake I made! Ah well, everyone does. I'm going to just keep moving forward" or, "I won't let it get me down" or, "Good thing I know mistakes are often a learning opportunity. what can I learn from this?"

Let your kids see you try something new and fail: "Oh, singing is So hard - my voice cracked all through my half hour lesson today. Ah well, I know if I keep practicing, I'll get it."

It will take time, but, overtime, these techniques along with just quality attention and time together will make a difference for your perfectionist kid.  He or she may still struggle with perfectionism, but it is a lot less likely to cripple him or her into doing nothing because of the fear of not doing it perfectly.

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