Does your child struggle to cope with failure, or get really upset when things don’t go their way? Do they cope at school but have outbursts at home which are difficult to get to the bottom of? Are they fiercely competitive and really struggle with not coming first place? These are some of the signs of a perfectionist personality. Frustratingly, many people will only see this as a positive. Who wouldn’t want a child who is diligent, conscientious and doesn’t give up until something is ‘perfect’? Of course, there are positives to being a perfectionist, but there are also downsides, and it can be really hard living with a child who expects everything to turn out perfectly.
It may sound obvious, but the reason these children might need a little bit of help is because life isn’t perfect. As adults, we know that things don’t always turn out the way we intended, and we’re constantly changing our plans to accommodate little things that just crop up. Children still have to learn this, and it can be especially hard for children who are perfectionists. Just being aware of their personality and making a few small changes, can make a big difference to how children with high standards cope and learn to adapt to life's ups and downs.
What's speech and language got to do with it?
You may be wondering what this has got to do with speech and language therapy. As a speech and language therapist, the main area where I see perfectionism is in my work with children who stammer. It’s not always the case, but it’s quite common for children who stammer to have very high standards of themselves. Part of my therapy programme can often include helping parents to acknowledge this and giving them ideas for how to help their child become a little bit more laid back. Of course, it’s not just children who stammer who can be perfectionists, and I find that I'm often having these conversations with many different parents and families.
Top tips for supporting perfectionism
Before I get started with some top tips, there’s one more point to mention and that is about being realistic. We know that being a perfectionist, like all personality traits, is partly inherited through genetics and no amount of therapy or support will change that. That’s not to say there is nothing you can do to help, there definitely is, but be aware your child is not going to go from being an ultra perfectionist to being ultra laid back. Our aim should be to celebrate the positives which come from being a perfectionist while helping children to cope and also thrive when there are setbacks.
So what can we do to help children who struggle when things go wrong? Here is what I've learnt:
1. Lead by example
As with all behaviours, children learn by watching and copying those around them. This gives us a really good opportunity to show children that when things don’t go to plan, it’s not the end of the world and we can cope! This is certainly easier said than done at times, especially if you can also recognise some perfectionist traits in yourself. None of us like it when things go wrong but showing children how you can be flexible and not let things bother you can be really powerful.
For example, when you burn dinner, rather than getting upset and blaming yourself, try seeing the funny side and think about how you can resolve the situation. Would your child enjoy cheese on toast for a change or could you treat yourselves to a takeaway?
2. Acknowledge their feelings
Your child may become really upset at things like losing in a game, not getting top marks in a spelling test or not being able to sit next to their friend on the bus. Rather than trying to brush the feelings aside by saying things like ‘it doesn’t matter’, or ‘never mind’, acknowledging your child’s feelings can help them to realise that you're on their side. You can do this by saying something like ‘I can see you're really upset that you didn’t win that game’. Once you have acknowledged how your child is feeling, the next step is to help the child focus on the positives e.g. ‘although you didn’t win this time, we did find your new favourite car in top trumps!’
3. Celebrate when things are 'good enough'
Perfectionists tend to work tirelessly until things are perfect in their eyes. This can manifest in different ways but often leads to distress if they can’t achieve perfection. It can be really helpful to show your child that things don’t always have to be perfect and to aim for things being ‘good enough’. For example, if your child is upset they haven’t finished their drawing and it’s time to go to bed you could say ‘that’s such a great drawing, the colours are lovely and I can see you’ve included lots of detail. I’m going to put it on the wall now and if you want you could always do some more tomorrow.’
Resist the temptation to alter your child’s work to make it ‘perfect’ as this will reinforce the wrong message. We want children to be pleased with their work and to enjoy the process. When your child shows you what they have done, give them praise for their efforts and notice specific things they have done well, such as ‘you’ve done a great job tidying up, I can see you’ve put most of the books back on the shelf, well done.'
4. Praise improvements
Praise can be a really powerful and positive way to reinforce a behaviour. Noticing what your child is doing well can have a real impact on their future behaviour, often far more than telling them what you don’t want them to do. Here, we need to be observant and spot times when they've shown a more laid back approach. Even if you're commenting on a small thing, your child will be pleased you have noticed and you're more likely to see this again in the future. For example, if your child has walked off after losing a game rather than the usual meltdown, you could say ‘I really liked how you took yourself off for some quiet time then to help you to calm down, that was really sensible’. Another example would be at bedtime, if your child is desperate to finish a book but has reluctantly agreed to leave the last chapter for the next night, you could say ‘well done for choosing to leave that chapter until tomorrow, this way you'll get a good night’s sleep and we can enjoy reading the end together tomorrow night’.
5. Find an inspirational role model
This can be a useful exercise, particularly for older children. It helps to give them some perspective, especially after a disappointment, such as perhaps not achieving what they had hoped in a test. Suggest doing some research around a famous role model or perhaps look for an autobiography if it's available. Focus on their journey from early setbacks, to where they are now, and it will help your child see that everyone experiences hardship and failure. As an example to get them interested, they might be surprised to find out that J.K Rowling was rejected by several publishers in the beginning of her career, or that U.S president Joe Biden endured a family tragedy and many setbacks in his life, but still went on to become president. Whoever your child is interested in, it's likely that they will have been through some difficult times which have shaped them as a person. This will help your child to see that negative experiences are opportunities to learn new things and to help us grow.
I really hope this has been a useful insight into how to identify and support children who are too hard on themselves. If any of this applies to your family, I would offer one final piece of advice and that is to focus on one tip at a time. Although they sound easy, putting them into practice in the context of busy family life can be anything but. So… be kind to yourself and focus on the ideas one at a time, that way you are more likely to have success.
Please leave a comment below if you’ve found this interesting, or if you feel Mable can offer further support to you or your child via our Speech and Language Therapy or Counselling service, please get in touch.