First-grade creative writing assignments: she sat frozen as a blank paper stared at her. She was a bright social child who loved school, but these assignments were simply overwhelming. At most, one or two sentences would be scribbled down while other children produced paragraphs or full pages. Her astute teacher noted the problem. She encouraged Olivia to "just start writing", but as she encouraged, the stress of the task escalated. This precious child simply could not "just start writing". Her mind was caught up in a story well beyond her abilities to write down. She couldn't figure out how to start and still be successful. She didn't know how to spell the words she was thinking. Her creativity was so elaborate it overwhelmed her and she did not want to produce a mediocre product and so she was paralyzed with the fear of failure, resulting in failure to write anything.
"I think Olivia is a perfectionist," the teacher said to her parents. It was news to them. As the teacher spoke, the pieces fell together. Olivia was well aware of her abilities. She knew she did not have the writing abilities to complete the task in the form it occurred in her brain. So, she simply chose not to complete the task. She wanted to write it down the way she thought it. It was not an option for her to compromise. And that made it impossible to complete. There was a huge gap between her "perfect" story and her writing abilities and she was not going to write it in an "imperfect" manner. She could not figure a way out of this dilemma. It took some intentional one-on-one coaching by her teacher and parents accompanied by some innovative interventions for her to begin producing a creative writing page. But, as the year progressed, she improved. She had begun the process of learning to deal with her own perfectionist tendencies.
Fourth grade was another huge milestone proving extremely frustrating for Olivia, her parents, and teacher: Timed Multiplication Tests. It took quite a bit of dialogue and trying to figure out her thinking process to help her maneuver this hurdle. The tests being timed was the first stressor. The pressure of having a limited amount of time to produce perfect work seemed impossible. She again froze in her tracks. Pull out the timer and she shut down, halted by stress. She could not, in her mind, write down a wrong answer. Everything in her shouted that she had to write down the correct answer. The only way she could make sure her memory was correct was if she first counted on her fingers to prove the right answer. This took far too long and the timed test would end before she finished one quarter of the problems. Again, it took lots of work and effort to teach Olivia to trust her brain. She had to be convinced and then convince herself, during the tests, that a wrong answer was okay and she would get lots of chances to improve. She eventually mastered the multiplication tables; the math wasn't the issue, she knew the right answers. She had to learn to be willing to write down her first hunches and be satisfied with some wrong answers in order to finish in the allotted time. These issues were way beyond a simple math problem. Olivia had to learn to deal with a core issue that raised its head again and again; perfectionism.
Perfectionism is not an inborn trait. It is a learned response and a tendency, although, some personalities lend more toward perfectionist tendencies. The article "Pitfalls of Perfectionism" by Hara Estroff Marano , written on Psychology Today website states, "Perfectionists, experts now know, are made and not born, commonly at an early age. They also know that perfectionism is increasing." (http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200802/pitfalls-perfectionism, accessed April 2012) They believe increases are seen because of society's quest for children to excel in academics, sports, etc. and the pressures to keep up with the global culture we now have access to. "Pressure on children to achieve is rampant," they comment.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood, says, "Perfectionism is individualistic. It is part of the complex way a particular child thinks about his or her relationships, desires, imaginings, moral qualities and experiences. Perfectionist tendencies for an older preschooler or school-age child will be intertwined with different aspects of that child. This understanding of perfectionism helps explain one of its perplexing aspects: A child is usually a perfectionist only in some areas. This would be unexplainable if perfectionism were a trait. But since each one of a child's qualities has a different purpose and function within his or her own complex psychology, perfectionist qualities appear in some areas and not others." (http://www.carolinaparent.com/articlemain.php?How-Do-I-Help-a-Young-Perfectionist-892, accessed 2012) This is why it does not appear in many children until they reach school where pressures and expectations are placed on them. It then surfaces in places parents were previously not aware of.
What is Perfectionism?
The main characteristics of a perfectionist are: Setting high performance standards that can't possibly be attained; motivated by fear of failure rather than applying their skills toward success; self-worth is based on accomplishments; perfection is key, anything less than perfection is not good enough; expects to always be successful therefore does not enjoy when success is attained; procrastinates on work that will be judged; and work must always be perfect so they will re-do a project several times, no matter how long it takes, to achieve perfection. Other signs include: unwillingness to volunteer answers to questions unless certain of the correct answer and overly emotional and "catastrophic" reaction to minor failures. (http://voices.yahoo.com/how-parent-perfectionist-672699.html, accessed April 2012) Perfectionism takes a toll on health. Illnesses prevalent in perfectionist kids include headaches, migraines, eating disorders, anxiety and depression.
The maxim "Nothing but perfection" may be spelled "Paralysis." ~ Winston Churchill
There is a thin line between a high achiever and a perfectionist. True perfectionists strive to be the highest of achievers, but their efforts are halted and blocked by the irrational expectations of error free performance, of being the best always, of knowing how to do all things perfectly and never being satisfied with their results. Yet, the highest price is paid by these children: they never discover the real secret of life, learning to handle mistakes and growing from them. Through mistakes humans learn to be creative, forgiving, persistent, and even passionate to achieve. Mistakes are the tools of learning. Children need to look at failure and see a "try again" sign, what they did, simply did not work, but it is not the end of other choices. It is a chance to creatively try another approach.
Parents need to watch for signs of perfectionist tendencies and reinforce effort and excellence, not perfection. If a child is frozen by perfectionist ideals professional help may be warranted, but reinforcing unconditional love, regardless of their achievements, is a great place to start. Teach that mistakes are simply "mis" "takes", like in movie productions when the producer yells "take one, two, three" and scenes are shot many times. These are chances for actors to do it over and apply different approaches to the same bits of information. Or, see mistakes as "try again" signs. This will help children to reframe their ideals and expectations; learning to handle mistakes and succeeding because of them. Give your children permission to be imperfect. You are going to need the same grace as their parents.
If you've got a kid who's fighting perfectionism, or if it's a personality trait you're dealing with yourself, there are a number of strategies you can employ on your own to begin changing for the better. Here are just a few ideas that might help you out:
• Let them be average for a day. Encourage your kid to allow himself to be messy, late, incomplete...imperfect. Then celebrate his success.
• Get your kid involved in activities that are not graded or judged— activities that focus on process, not product.
• Help them take a risk. Have them sign up for a course with a reputation for being challenging. Challenge them to start a conversation with someone they don't know. Encourage them to do an assignment or study for a test without overdoing it. Alter their morning routine. Let them start a day without a plan.
• Give them permission to make mistakes—at least three a day!
• Ban the word "should" from their vocabulary. And make them remove the phrase "I have to" from conversations—and from their conversations with themselves.
• Ask them to share a weakness or limitation with you. Help them recognize that you don't think any less of them as a result.
• Help them acknowledge that their expectations of themselves might be too high, or even unrealistic.
• Savor their past accomplishments with them. Encourage them to write about how good they made them feel.
• Help them "cure" their perfectionism. Maybe you can give them a sign or a word when you notice them being a perfectionist.
• Encourage them to join the human race. It's less lonely when they accept their own and others' imperfections and feel part of life.
• If you think they need more help, encourage them to talk with a school counselor or psychologist. They should explain their situation and ask for suggestions.
(http://www.parentsconnect.com/parenting-your-kids/parenting-teenagers/teen-behavior/teen-stress/fighting_perfectionism.html, accessed April 2012)