How to Help Children who Struggle with Perfectionism

Perfect: To be entirely without fault or defect

There are many children (and adults) today struggling with the need to be perfect. 

As a Virgo, I can certainly relate to the battle between wanting to be the best version of myself over the need to make things perfect.

So, what’s the difference between holding high expectations of yourself and being a perfectionist?

I believe the difference between the two boils down to motivation.  Those that are intrinsically motivated tend to have a high need to please themselves.  While those that are extrinsically motivated tend to have a high need to please others.  Holding high expectations of yourself leads to self-satisfaction, autonomy, accountability, personal growth, and high self-esteem. Perfectionism, however, leads to anxiety, stress, negative self-talk, being overly cautious and low self-esteem because the focus is on what other people will think of me if I fail.  When perfectionists believe that they will not be good at a certain task, they often give up or avoid it all together.

How can we help children that struggle with perfectionism?

Promote intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is when children have the ability to internally motivate themselves to achieve a task.  They don’t need external rewards, sticker charts, trophies or praise from others.  They do it just because they want to.  Giving children the opportunity to make choices, be independent, explore, and to recognise when they have worked hard and can see the results of their own actions, all help to promote intrinsic motivation. Do you help motivate your children with rewards and punishment? Or do you motivate them by appealing to their natural curiosity and inner drive? 

Expose the myth of perfection with critical thinking

The media often portray people as being perfect. We can help debunk that unattainable myth by teaching our children to be critical thinkers.  Through movies, advertising and social media, children are constantly exposed to perfect families wearing perfect clothes, living in perfect houses, having the perfect amount of toys and enjoying a perfect lifestyle.  If children are always comparing themselves to these ‘perfect’ people, it can be very damaging to their self-esteem.  I remember how I felt in the 90’s after reading the monthly edition of the Dolly magazine.  It was always full of happy, confident girls with great clothes, shiny hair, and flawless skin.  After reading these magazines, my self-esteem would always plummet – and I only looked at this material once a month!  In today’s world, I can only imagine what hours of daily scrolling on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok would do to a child’s self-esteem.

We can help debunk that myth of perfection through honest conversations, asking questions and teaching them to be critical thinkers.

Questions you can ask include:

  • Why don’t we see people mis-pronounce words, or get muddled up in movies?
  • Do you think that the kids in this YouTube video spend all day opening toys? What other things would they do in their day?
  • The house in this video clip looks immaculate.  Do you think the whole house looks like this? What things could they have done in the video to make the house appear so spotless and clutter free?
  • This family on YouTube always seem to look happy and excited.  Do you think they would ever be sad or angry? What things would make them said and angry?
  • How long do you think it takes to do their hair and make-up for these shows? Do you think most people spend that much time doing their hair and make-up in real life?

When my eldest daughter was a tween, I showed her this video:

It such a powerful tool to show exactly how long it takes for a model to get her hair and makeup done and how much editing they do to the original images. We still talk about this video and often refer back to it when watching TV shows.

Embrace Mistakes and Failures

  • Did you know that sticky notes were invented after 3M made a failed attempt at a super strong adhesive?
  • Did you know that the person who invented the slinky was actually working on a navel engineering project, until he accidentally knocked a spring coil onto the floor?
  • Did you know that Katy Perry only sold 200 copies of her first album before her record label went out of business?

Embracing mistakes and having an open discussion about them is really important in a child’s development.  Children often grow up thinking that adults know all the answers or don’t make mistakes – and we all know that’s not true!  Don’t be afraid to tell children about the mistakes and failed attempts you have made and how you overcame them.  They love hearing these stories.

Try new tasks together

Try new tasks and activities together that put you both into the beginner situation.  It’s easier for them to try, fail, and look goofy when someone else is doing it alongside them too. 

Use Positive Language

Language is powerful! 

When children get mad at themselves for making a mistake, we can offer words that inspire, heal, reassure, give courage, or foster healthy self-talk and a positive mindset.

Some examples include:

The Power of Yet. 

The power of yet has become popular with most SEL enthusiasts and by adding it to the end of a sentence, it gives children the power and ability to improve.

For example, if a child says “Ï can’t tie my shoelaces”, it can’t be changed to

“I can’t tie my shoelaces, yet.”

Smart Mind, Strong Body and Beautiful Heart

To help children overcome obstacles and improve self-confidence, I like to use the phrase from my picture book, Rosie Leads the Way:

You have a smart mind. You have a strong body. You have a beautiful Heart”.

Excerpt from picture book, Rosie Leads the Way by Renee Irving Lee and illustrated by Lisa Coutts

Depending on the situation, some other things you could say to a child after they make a mistake..

Ok, what can we do now?

Can you think of a better way?

I have faith that you will work out a solution.

You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing.

“It’s ok to change your mind and try a different approach.

“It’s ok to make mistakes.

“It’s ok to make a mess”

I’m excited to see what you do next.

”You can try again tomorrow.”

I will always love you.

Would you like a do-over?

Realistic Goal Setting

Sometimes children have a meltdown after failure because they have set themselves unrealistic expectations. Can you help them with goal setting or adjusting their expectations of themselves? Help them to set goals that focus on progress, not perfection!

Focus on the effort rather than the outcome

So, if your child does happen to get a perfect score on a test, it’s better to focus on how hard they studied to get that result rather than the end result itself. Focusing on the effort also helps to foster intrinisc motivation.

The reality is, that parents aren’t perfect. Teachers aren’t perfect and children certainly aren’t perfect either. Absolutely nobody can be perfect.

We all make mistakes.

We all fail and we all make a mess sometimes.

By allowing children to accept, understand and embrace this reality is the “perfect” way to combat perfectionism!

“After talking with her Mum, Rosie believes she is the most beautiful girl in the whole entire world – but the day she met Penelope Pennington she wasn’t so sure.  Penelope Pennington had the perfect hair, the perfect clothes, the perfect shoes and even the perfect cat!  

So, when Rosie and Penelope unexpectedly walk home together, they both make some meaningful discoveries along the way.   Was Penelope really that perfect? How does Rosie manage to overcome her self-doubt to lead the way?

“Rosie absolutely leads the way in this inspiring story,showing young girls how to be smart, strong and kind. Rosie is the girl we should all aspire to be!This is a simply delightful book with a powerful message.” – Dr Samantha Hornery, Learning Links Education Manager.

“Rosie is a brilliant unintentional role model for girls.  A great book to read aloud, which is important as you’ll be asked to over and over, and beautifully illustrated.” – Kim McCabe, Parenting Expert, Girls’ Mentor, Author and Founder of Rites for Girls.

“This is a skilfully written story, deceptively simple but one that resonates with young children who are very focussed on the concepts of strengths, friendship and kindness. The delightfully vibrant and energetic illustrations help to capture and hold our interest.” – Sarah Harris, Early Childhood Teacher (45 years Experience)

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