One Saturday morning, my 6-year-old daughter was making a birthday card for a friend. She was sitting at a small table, and on the floor next to her were about ten crumpled sheets of paper. She kept writing the letter “H” for “Happy Birthday,” then deciding she didn’t like how it looked. She was getting frustrated, and I wanted her to stop using up all the paper.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked her. “Let’s slow down. I know your friend is going to love any card you make because you made it.”
“No, he’s not!” she screamed, tears welling in her eyes. “I can’t do it!”
She crumpled up another page.
A lot of things were going on at that time — not the least of which was the fact that we had just brought home her new baby brother, and she needed to work through this massive life change. But I’d never really seen perfectionist tendencies in her, and this worried me. I know, on a deep level, how a desire to be perfect can have paralysing consequences. When people decide that they’re only going to do something if they can do it impeccably, they never leave their comfort zone.
How can parents teach kids to be gentler on themselves, to embrace the messy learning process, to know that they’re safe and loved? I spoke with Rebecca Newkirk, a licensed clinical social worker who specialises in helping people overcome perfectionism to see what can be done.
(Spoiler: Yes, parents can perpetuate perfectionism, but yes, we can change.)
Where does perfectionism in kids come from?
Perfectionism is, at its core, an experience of not being “safe” and wanting to have some amount of control so that we feel that we can keep ourselves safe. In this context, we are mostly talking about emotional safety and safety inside of the relationship with the caregiver.
As children, we are at the mercy of our caregivers. When they are happy, they take better care of us (as a rule) and we feel safer. When they are not happy, we often feel as though there is a rupture in the relationship, either because the parent is more distant and less responsive, or maybe has a lower stress threshold, so things that normally the parent might find funny or endearing, the parent might react angrily to.
This is very scary to children because it is not following the normal patterns. The child experiences the parent’s response — both positive and negative — as a direct response to the child’s behaviour. The child is not taking into consideration context or the parent’s mood outside of the relationship.
This creates a sense of uncertainty. The child may think, “Last time I threw a pillow we had a pillow fight and Mummy was laughing. This time when I threw the pillow I got spoken to harshly. I wonder what I did wrong when I threw the pillow this time.” So this is laying the foundation for how magical thinking can create perfectionist tendencies.
Tell me more about “magical thinking.”
Magical thinking is developmentally normal for small children and is at its peak between the ages of 2 to 7. It is the core of superstitions, like believing that you will bring yourself bad luck if you break a mirror.
When a child applies magical thinking to their relationships, it might sound something like, “Yesterday I wore blue and Mum was really happy. Today I will wear blue.” The problem is that the blue shirt is not what actually caused mum’s good mood. So when the child wears blue a second time and didn’t get the same response, the child may perceive her/himself as having done it wrong. The child may decide that they wore the wrong shade of blue, or that the shirt was not shaped properly.
To believe that the shirt was not the cause of Mum’s good mood would mean that the child has either no power to make it better, or doesn’t know what they need to do in order to make it better. This causes so much anxiety that it is preferable to be really hard on themselves so as to get the desired result: “If I just try hard enough/pay enough attention/do well enough in school/soothe tensions between my siblings then mum will be happy and by extension, I will be safe.”
Do parents perpetuate perfectionism in children?
Absolutely. In a lot of cases, I think it’s less what the parent is saying, and more what the parent is not saying that makes the difference. Think about the example of a small child waiting excitedly for Mum to come home from work. Mum is in a bad mood. Child’s expectation is that Mum is going to be excited to see her, but Mum is minimally responsive at best, and irritable at worst. This is everyone as a parent at some point. Letting this go without discussing it with the child could perpetuate perfectionism.
If Mum were to say, “I am so excited to see you, but I have had a hard day, so I’m sad and feeling tired,” this would go a long way. I want to stress that it doesn’t matter how old the child is. We should be saying things like this to very small children, before they can understand what we are saying. When parents discuss their moods with their children, they are not only encouraging emotional development and emotional intelligence, but they are also explaining that people just have bad moods sometimes and that this can be normal and no one’s fault. This gives the child permission to be unhappy sometimes and it also gives the child a pass when their parents are unhappy, directly addressing their tendency to take responsibility for it.
Are there any other changes that parents can make?
Compliment the process of [your kids’ efforts] rather than the product of their efforts. Instead of, “Wow, you did so well on your spelling test,” it would be, “I am so proud of how hard you worked studying for your spelling test.” We want to praise effort, not outcome.
Instead of, “You look so beautiful in that outfit,” it would be, “I love how you express yourself with the outfits you put together.”
There is also something called “Nurtured Heart,” which is a very gentle approach to giving compliments to children in ways that they can hear. Basically, you find a specific thing that they did well and then link it with what that means about who they are. Instead of saying, “You’re so smart,” you would instead say something like, “When you were able to answer that question it showed me how smart you are.”
That sounds awkward, but I think you get the idea. We want to find a specific thing that they did that expresses the trait we are complimenting. Otherwise children can get over praised and just assume you are lying when you say something nice about them, because you always say that.
How early can parents look for signs of perfectionism?
This is a hard question to answer. I am inclined to say very young. An anxious two-year-old is more likely to develop perfectionism later. We can look for signs of the child trying to make us feel better when we are upset. Recently, my husband and I had a disagreement and my one-year-old daughter was making noises. If I didn’t look at her and respond while she was making these noises, she became very distressed, and only calmed down when she was distracting me, or “saving me” from being upset. This is not in itself problematic, or a sign of perfectionism, but it is this type of behaviour that could develop beyond what is normal or healthy.
I would guess — although it varies wildly based on specific children and their development — that we can see perfectionism as young as 4 or 5, when children start to do more things for themselves, and might be hard on themselves if their handwriting is not perfect/their room is not clean enough/their outfit isn’t good enough/the feedback from their teacher wasn’t positive enough.
If a kid is getting frustrated that he or she isn’t doing something perfectly, what can parents do in that moment to help them? For instance, I noticed my daughter crumpling up paper because she felt her writing wasn’t good enough.
Be a safe, neutral, reflective presence. In these moments we want to support the child in regulating, which means we have to be the regulated presence. Do your best to stay with the child until the child is feeling calmer, even if you are just sitting and being available. If the child rejects or yells when you say anything, you can merely say, “I’m here whenever you’re ready,” or “You’re not alone.”
If the child is more amenable to hearing what you have to say, you could gently say something like, “You are really frustrated with your handwriting right now,” or “You feel like it has to be better than that to be good enough.” Basically we want to gently reflect back at the child what you think they are feeling. This helps them to develop the emotional language so that they can talk about how they are feeling. It’s only after they have calmed down that we can respond to what we saw happening and identify that they are good enough and loveable even when their handwriting (or anything else) isn’t what they want it to be.