Q. Our son Tyler is 11 years old; he’s smart and does well in school, but he doesn’t seem to think he does well enough. He’s unhappy when his work isn’t perfect. His father and I don’t ever tell him he isn’t doing well enough; it seems like he has self-imposed pressure to be perfect. What do you think is going on with Tyler and how can we help him?
A. We don’t know what causes perfectionism. Authors on the subject have theorized that in some cases parents give praise and love when a child succeeds and criticize when the child doesn’t do well. Another theory is that in some cases a parent models perfectionism. Yet another could be parents praising even trivial accomplishments resulting in the child feeling valued for what they do and not for who they are. And I suspect some children may have an inborn tendency for perfectionism. Here are some ideas to encourage a child to be happy with good or excellent rather than with perfection:
1. Use terms like “admirable work” instead of “perfect work.”
2. Explain the difference between excellence and perfection.
3. Set goals of improving rather than an earning an A or an A+.
4.. Use caution when bragging to friends and family about your perfectionist child.
5. Instead of “I am proud of you,” try saying “You can be proud of yourself for these great grades.”
6. Exhibit a sense of humor about your own mistakes or weaknesses. Model the ability to laugh at your mistakes and the courage to try again.
7. Give your child practice losing at small games such as card or board games. Encourage and model being okay with losing some of the time.
8. Talk with the child’s teacher about ways he or she can help to reduce disappointment with not being perfect or best.
9. Consider limiting homework time if it is excessive in search of perfection.
10. Teach your child to recognize negative self-talk and to replace it with positive affirmations.
11. Provide diversions to keep his mind busy and he can learn that you can’t win every time or be the best in everything.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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