In today’s society, we tend to strive for excellence in all that we do. We need to feel successful, be noticed by our supervisors, make a lot of money, be a good parent, and so on. However, at times, these measures of success can be hard to identify. When do you know you have reached excellence? How do you know you are on the right track?
The unfortunate truth is that we often do not know this for certain, but we keep striving towards whatever it is that we believe will fulfill our definition of success. In modern day society, this is simply the world we live in. This is also the world our children live in.
So, we must consider what our children may be facing. Many are experiencing a pressure-laden internal dialogue, such as: “I must get good grades,” “I need to be on my best behavior, so I do not get in trouble,” “Everyone is telling me that if I do not do well, I won’t get into a good college,” and the list of worries goes on. While many are also feeling conflicting thoughts, such as: “Why can’t I just play with my friends?”, “Why does this matter?”, or "This is stupid. I don’t really care about this.”
This is a very difficult position to be in. For children and teens, a great deal of their beliefs are formulated by parents, teachers, coaches, older siblings, and other adult models. Often, the goal as a child is to “be good” and “do good”; however, the concept of “good” is actually quite abstract and, in many cases, difficult to define.
That same drive for excellence and success exists within the world of elementary and high school education. Although it is important to have goals and work towards them, the combination of high expectations and pressure-laden worries can often cause anxiety, making it very difficult to 1) be a kid, 2) develop work/life balance and 3) have confidence and build self-esteem.
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes it can be very difficult to know what excellence or success looks like, especially when there is often no immediate reward for the achievement. Often, the motivation comes from an abstract idea of a better future, which may seem very out of reach or incomprehensible to a child depending on their age or developmental stage. Let’s look at some signs that your child may be in this predicament, and as a result, struggling with perfectionistic anxiety.
Fear of New Things
For perfectionistic kids, trying new things can be very distressing because it may reveal that the child is not immediately good at something. As a result, they may become anxious if they are not adept at this new activity and quickly able to obtain mastery.
Homework or Task Habits
You may notice a pattern of needing to continue until it’s “perfect” when completing homework, working on a project, or even doing a chore. Many perfectionist children find that they want/need to endlessly work on one thing until they feel it is perfect. Unfortunately, this often delays completion and in many cases, perfectionistic students have difficulty completing tasks or turning in their work.
Anxiety can come in all shapes and sizes, so this may be harder to identify. Anxiety can present itself through emotional, behavioral, or physical symptoms. Some children or teens may express anxiety through avoidance, procrastination or obsessive worry. Others may display emotional outbursts (crying, yelling, quickly flying off the handle), moodiness, or irritability. You may also notice sleep difficulties, changes in appetite, or bad dreams. Complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, or nausea may also surface prior to an anticipated activity. In this context, symptoms are often triggered by scenarios that are associated with high pressure.
What can I do?
Here are some tips for parents and other caring adults to address perfectionism in your child or teen.
The words and phrases we use can make a big impact on the confidence in a child or teen. It can be helpful to take breaks from goal-oriented language. Perhaps you’ve found yourself making statements such as “This is good, but..” or you find yourself quick to offer for “constructive criticism.” Of course, there is a time and place for constructive criticism, but when this is the type of language used repeatedly, it can increase feelings of inadequacy.
Instead, focus on the child’s efforts by saying things like “I like how you ….” (and focus on a particular aspect that is praiseworthy), or “I notice that you’re really putting forth a lot of effort on this project, nice work!”, without following up with recommendations for improvements. Praise the effort, and allow them to experience just being great!
Following are some activities that you can conduct with your child or teen to work through aspects of perfectionistic anxiety.
Bounce Back Box
Sometimes, all we need is a reminder that we have been through difficult times before and have persevered! The Bounce Back Box serves as a reflection of what they have accomplished in the past. Having your child or teen remember and write down times that have been tough, but they have persisted and overcome an obstacle, such as studying for a big test, writing a paper, mastering a sport, or playing an instrument, can put a current situation into perspective. This allows them to highlight and recall real examples of how they achieved success, thereby helping them navigate a difficult new task with hope and confidence.
The Bounce Back Box is a place to write down past struggles that were overcome. When needed, a child can look at examples in their box and see that there were many tough moments like the one they are facing now, and like those moments, they will get through this one too!
Example: "I bounced back when…”
I bounced back when... “I made a homework mistake, but next time I remembered and did better.”
I bounced back when... “I made some mistakes playing this song on the piano, but I kept trying and now I can play it well from memory!”
Often, a child or teen with perfectionistic tendencies may work on something for a very long time without a break. This is often the case when a student is working on a paper, an art project, or any type of task that requires extensive time and mental effort. In these situations, you may observe the child or teen write a sentence and then obsessively erase it and start over continuously because “it’s just not right,” or “it could be better.” When there is a lot of effort being exerted over a length of time, it could be time for a movement break to allow for some time away from the project to refresh and rejuvenate.
Many things can function as a movement break. For example, stretching, dancing to a favorite song, doing jumping jacks, spending 30 minutes outside, or just doing something else completely.
Hyper-focusing on one thing for a long time tends to leave a perfectionist stuck in a cycle that is hard to break. Taking some time away from the task to get their blood flowing can be helpful for breaking the cycle, thereby resuming the task with a fresh mind set.
Grounding techniques are another great way to refresh the mind and body when mentally stuck on a task. There are many grounding techniques available that can be found online, but a personal favorite is the “I am a tree” technique. In this exercise, you physically get up and visualize being a tree. You can read this aloud to your child and help them walk through the exercise.
I am a tree: “I stand tall and am firmly planted to the ground. I feel my feet rooted in the dirt, my toes extending out like roots. My back is a strong trunk that keeps me stable. I feel my arms reach out like branches into the air. My fingers are leaves rustling in the breeze. I am steady, I am strong, I am a tree!”
This exercise, and other grounding exercises, help to reconnect with the body and return to any task with stability and confidence.
Reframing our Thinking
Another helpful tool is to practice reframing negative thoughts in order to think about things in different ways. When stress sets in and excessive attention is being directed to a specific event, like an upcoming test, game, or event, it can be beneficial to ask:
“Will I think about this a week from now, a month from now, a year from now?”
In most circumstances, asking ourselves this question will help put the current situation into perspective by allowing your child to explore how significant their present concern is within the bigger picture. Often, the majority of daily things we tend to be stressed about, even if we are thinking about them a week later, often will not stay with us for a month or a year.
When perfection is the goal for your child, it can also be helpful to think about what perfection really looks like.
“Is anything 100% perfect? What would the world look like if everything was perfect?”
The truth is, nothing is perfect, and things would get pretty boring if that were the case. After all, perfection would mean never learning, growing, or experiencing things; everyone would be good at everything! We may strive for perfection, but the fact that we are not perfect is what allows us to do so many amazing things and develop as human beings. Embrace the journey, be nice to yourself, and recognize that what feels like a struggle now will soon be something new you have learned and experienced.
In addition to using the Bounce Back Box activity to reflect on past struggles that have evolved into successes, these are some good questions to talk to your child or teen about if you find they are in this predicament. Let them know you are there for them and that things sometimes feel bigger than they are, but it is okay.
Being a child or a teenager is hard, and they are often trying the best they can. Just like adults, they may not always feel heard, understood, or rewarded by all of the work that they do.
Communication is key. Keeping an open dialogue with your child or teen can make a big difference in not only noticing anxiety or perfectionistic symptoms, but also your ability to help them ease their anxiety if they are feeling the pressure from school, sports, or something else.
If you are concerned that your child or teen may be struggling with perfectionism or a related anxiety, we can help! Contact our office at 630.206.4060 to schedule an appointment today.