Parenting with a PhD: Anxiety

By Kristen Berthiaume:

Kids Who Can’t Make Mistakes.

For most of our kids, making mistakes is just a part of daily life. They mess up again and again (and again…AND again…) and, if we’re lucky, eventually learn from it. But, for perfectionistic kids, mistakes are monumental. These kids become really anxious when they’re corrected or realize they’ve gotten something wrong. As a result, they’re often hesitant to try new things because they might not be good at them right away. Research has found that perfectionistic kids are less likely to challenge themselves and tend to stick to what they already know so they can get it just right. Although this strategy leads to less stress for them, it can mean they miss out on opportunities and experiences that might benefit them. If you have a perfectionistic kid in your house, here are some ideas for helping your child screw up and be O.K. with that.

First, check how you are giving your child instructions and feedback. Have you made it clear that you don’t expect perfection? Are there harsh consequences for mistakes (e.g., spilling, forgetting, losing)? Taking an honest look at how you might be contributing to your child’s perfectionism is the first step toward helping him loosen up a little. Have a conversation about how we all mess up, especially when we’re learning something new. Explain that adults who work with kids know they have to mess up a whole lot before they get it right because that’s the main way we learn. School, piano lessons, and soccer practice would be completely unnecessary if we did everything right the first time and our teachers, coaches, etc. want to feel like we need them. To give feedback that is constructive, not oppressive, say a little at a time and make sure to start with the positives. Sometimes we parents micromanage when our kids are learning something new. Our family’s lives are super busy and we don’t always want to invest the time in laying foundation for a new skill. Also, we hate to see our kids disappointed that something didn’t work right away. But, Rome wasn’t built in a day and your child can’t perfect a new skill on the first try. Highlight improvement with each attempt and focus on the effort she is putting in to learn versus the outcome.

If homework takes forever because your child needs to get it just right, set some limits on how many times she’s allowed to re-do something. For example, you might say she can erase and re-write only three times per assignment. Encourage your child to erase just the incorrect letter or word versus whole sentences, and discourage starting from scratch because there are erasure marks on the paper. If your child becomes frustrated with these limits while working, have her break for five minutes to calm down before resuming the assignment. In order to work within these limits, she’ll have to learn to handle the distress that comes with knowing something’s not perfect but not being allowed to fix it. Have her take deep breaths and think positive thoughts like: “I can handle this,” or “One mistake isn’t a big deal.” Consider offering a small reward for following the limits you’ve put in place and for staying calm while doing so. Rewards can also be helpful when you want your child to try something new or challenge herself a bit so try this as well.

Share your own mistakes. When you catch yourself screwing up, don’t offer excuses or brush it aside – point it out. Explain that you made a mistake and try to keep the conversation light. This will help your child see that you own up to your mistakes and that you don’t view them as cause for shame. Go further by making a plan for fixing the mistake. “I accidentally deleted your favorite show from the DVR because I wasn’t paying attention. I’m going to try and find that episode online so you can watch it.” Obviously, use good judgment when sharing – your child doesn’t need to hear how you cheated on your taxes.

Search out kid-friendly biographies of famous people who your child admires and read them together. Look for mistakes the individual made along the way – the bad decisions, the lost games, the unmet goals – and talk about how the subject learned from those setbacks. Discuss what would have happened if the individual didn’t keep trying after screwing up – we would never have heard of him! Talk about the qualities the subject had that allowed her to keep going, despite her errors. Which of those qualities does your child have also? Which does he want to work on? Remind your child about this person’s story when he is having a particularly tough time handling his own screw-ups.

A great way to get the conversation about perfectionism started is through reading books about perfectionism and stress together. One I love is The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein. The girl in the story is known as “The Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes” – so much so that no one even knows her real name. She’s careful not to try anything that might not go as planned so she can maintain her perfect record. Life is pretty predictable for her until she finally makes – GASP! – a mistake. Beatrice (that’s her real name, by the way) quickly realizes that, with her first mistake out of the way, the pressure’s off and she can try things she’s been avoiding for fear of messing up. Read this story together and talk about worries your child shares with Beatrice. Discuss how your child might be missing out on opportunities and fun because he’s afraid he might fail. Other books to consider for kids are: Nobody’s Perfect: A Story for Children About Perfectionism by Ellen Flanagan Burns and What to Do When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough: The Real Deal on Perfectionism: A Guide for Kids by Thomas S. Greenspon. Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good by Jan Goldberg is a great option for teens.

If your child’s perfectionism is leading to significant stress for everyone, things might get better faster if you work with a psychologist or counselor on reducing perfectionism and anxiety. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about a referral for someone who does cognitive behavioral therapy for kids with anxiety issues. Plan to meet weekly or every other week, at least until things are under better control.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her six-year-old and newborn daughters and three-year-old son.

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