As moms, we learn to decode our child’s cries. A low, nasally one accompanied by the word “no” is usually a whine type of cry. It doesn’t signal an emergency. The other type sends chills down my spine. It starts with a loud thud, followed by a quick scream, a pause, and then blood-curdling crying. That pause feels like an eternity, and when kids gather all their strength and breath to let out the cry, that means one thing: I’m hurt.
My four-year-old let out the second cry recently, only it came without warning. I didn’t hear a bang before the wailing, only the scream. She stood at the table sobbing, next to my husband. When I asked what happened, she shouted, “I ruined my picture.”
It took my brain a while to understand the situation. She cried like she was hurt, yet she didn’t physically injure herself. I probed more to figure out why an art mistake caused so much distress. My husband explained they were making cards for me and my daughter wanted hers to look just like daddy’s card. Along the way, she made a line that wasn’t the exact same, and she lost it. She yelled, “it’s not perfect anymore!”
My heart broke into pieces. As a recovering perfectionist, I know how much weight that word brings. I, like her, went into a shame spiral. I passed this down to her. It was a dagger to the heart, and I knew it had to be addressed immediately.
I looked at that sweet girl and told her I loved the card because she made it for me, and she tried her best. I said we all make mistakes (in her eyes, it was) and what matters is that we give it our all. The other message I sent was it was ok to be upset about what happened. I refused to tell her she was overreacting. Anyone who’s struggled with perfectionism knows that word makes everything worse.
Thanks to some great problem-solving, the crisis was averted. They used a piece of paper to cover up the “mistake” and finished the masterpiece. When she gave it to me, I again told her how much I loved it because it came from her. This wasn’t the first time I saw her exhibit perfection tendencies. She had gotten upset many times when she didn’t make her bed “perfect” or when things didn’t go according to her plans.
Unfortunately, perfectionism is becoming more common in kids. It’s increased over the several decades and research shows by the time children reach their teen years, 25-30% of them have “maladaptive perfectionism,” striving for unrealistic perfection to the point it causes pain. A larger percentage of teens have less destructive forms of perfectionism, but it’s a risk factor for depression and anxiety if left unresolved. And with that, all the other recovering perfectionists just yelled, “DUH.”
So how do we change statistics? Here are some things we’ve done to try to overcome perfectionism.
Stop using the word perfect.
It’s hard when terms like “practice makes perfect” are ingrained in our heads, but try to eliminate it or say, practice makes us better.
Address the mistake, not the person.
Perfectionism can lead to self-deprecation. We want our daughter to know she may have made a mistake, but it doesn’t mean she is stupid or unworthy.
Validate feelings and let the child be heard.
It’s ok to be upset when things don’t go our way. We can only control how we react.
Talk about mistakes!
This one is hard for me, but it’s important. We all make mistakes, and when you do, apologize and talk about it.
Talk about expectations.
When my daughter is disappointed, it’s usually because she set high expectations. Making expectations more realistic can help alleviate disappointment. Use your own experiences, how they made you feel and what you learned for future situations.
When my daughter brings home something she worked hard on, we give major praise. We let her know we are proud of her, and we can tell she’s been practicing.
Seek help if needed.
If we feel we are no longer equipped to adequately deal with this, we will find someone who can. We normalize therapy and encourage it.
Will the recovering perfectionists please stand up?