Updated: Aug 29
How to help a child with perfectionist tendencies… A Three Part Series
In Part 1 of this 3-part series, I described some of the behaviors a child might exhibit if they have perfectionist tendencies. To refresh your memory, check out the post here:
PART 2: CELEBRATE MISTAKES
Sounds counter intuitive doesn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to prevent our kids from making mistakes? Or reprimand them? Or tell them not to make mistakes?
As kids we were always cautioned against making mistakes, right? So why do I want to celebrate my kids’ mistakes?
I hear kids all the time, especially in dance class or sports, “I hope I don’t make a mistake” or “I hope I don’t get it wrong.” Or they don't want to raise their hand in class at school in case they blurt out the wrong answer.
They hope they don’t make a mistake because they view the mistake as something that diminishes who they are. That somehow, they aren’t good enough. Many kids, by age 5 or 6 years old, are already determining their self-worth by their mistakes. And the fear of judgment from others is very strong.
Judgement and evaluations abound in our world… and it’s played a big role in our self-esteem and self-worth. Even the words “good” and “bad” are judgements technically – because what is good for me, might be in your standards bad for you…
In my family, similar to many conservative traditional families, making mistakes was not okay. You did not make mistakes. Mistakes meant punishments.
What did this lead to? Hiding things, telling lies about stuff, and a lack of open dialogue with parents for fear of being punished, put down, condemned.
If mistakes had been treated as a stepping stone to something greater, then we would not have feared mistakes as much as we did. When kids start to fear mistakes, they may not want to do anything new or challenging. And by the way, schools systems are far from free of the habit of condemning mistakes or “bad” behaviour…
What are the impacts of this?
1. Internal feelings of sadness, loneliness and in the long-run, low self-esteem.
2. Feelings of inadequacy.
3. Don’t want to take healthy risks, hence stay in their comfort zone.
4. Unable to handle constructive criticism.
5. Unable to achieve goals and dreams, as these lie outside the comfort zone.
6. Unable to become a self-leader.
7. Could become apathetic to mistakes with an attitude of “I don’t care, doesn’t matter anyways.”
8. Become overly critical or even engage in self-harm because of the mistakes.
I know this well. I did this. I remember being as young as 6 years old and pointing a knife into my belly because I felt like I didn’t do anything right – my self-worth was so low. Sounds crazy right? Age six? Yeah, it’s a bit unbelievable for me to share this with you and yet I did it.
This is where traditional parenting chimes in to say “Well she must have seen that on TV or something…?” Yes, I had seen stuff on TV and movies which didn’t help – a great reason to limit screen time and understand the content kids are consuming.
And the reality is that kids’ beliefs about themselves and the world around them are developed by age 7. And, between ages 8-12 the brain starts to look for information that confirms the beliefs they already have. So obviously stuff was going on for me as I reached this age that had caused me to develop a habit of negative self-talk and my subconscious mind shouted at me each day: “Hey, you’re not good enough!”
I had little support and no interventions in my childhood, no resources, skills or strategies that were explicitly taught to me to help me understand all this – I didn’t have a coach! I didn’t have a therapist. I had didn’t have parents who understood how a child’s brain develops and how to support that child, what to say and how to approach challenges, and how to empower kids.
Most research related to suicide overlooks young kids. According to the American Psychological Association, “Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”[i] This means other developed countries aren’t far behind in terms of numbers.
This didn’t just happen though. I was receiving so much messaging from family, media and school that mistakes were bad. I started to identify with my mistakes: “I am bad because I make mistakes.” It wasn’t that the mistake was “bad” or just a thing that happened, it was the self-identification with it: “I am bad…”
When I lived in India, I used to read about kids in the newspapers as young as nine years old taking their lives because of the pressures they faced from family, school and society at large.
So what do we do? Lets’ dive in further:
If we say to our kids “don’t make mistakes” or any phrasing that denotes how their mistake was a failure, how the mistake fell short of expectations, or how the mistake was unwarranted, etc. they will have the tendency to fear mistakes. I have done this myself as a parent. It’s a tough gig since we’re trying to overcome years and generations of programming…
If we repeatedly indicate to our kids that making mistakes is not good, this creates a neural pathway or neural network in their brain and forms beliefs about what it means to make mistakes…
Neural connections in our brain are created by our experiences, what we learn, feelings, thoughts etc. Two significant things to note about neural pathways in the brain:
1. They form our habits; habits are basically really strong neural pathways.
2. If we’ve never done something before, we don’t have any neural pathways for it. The thought that “This is weird” or feelings of discomfort can rise up when we don’t have neural pathways for something and this can then generate self-doubt, fear, worry, nervousness or anxiety.
The challenge with continuously reprimanding, showing disappointment, punishing, or ignoring a child’s mistakes (sometimes ignoring them has sense of shame or unworthiness attached== “I’m not going to look at you because you made mistake…) is that this forms neural pathways in the child’s brain about who they are; as these pathways get strengthened, they become belief systems. Belief systems developed during childhood are tougher to shift in adulthood.
The pathway could look like a set of neurons that connect and spell out to the child that…
MISTAKES = BAD = FEAR = COULD MESS UP = NOT WORTH IT = DON’T DO IT (…and so on…)
What can we differently to empower our child?
How can you celebrate mistakes when it does not feel natural? We don’t just shout “yippee” or “hooray” when we make a mistake or when our child makes a mistake, do we? If you’ve never heard of ‘celebrating your mistakes’ and have never done it before, it means you do not have a neural pathway in your brain for it. But it can be learned.
It doesn’t have to be an enthusiastic jump-up-and-down-moment (although it could be: me and my kids started doing a little “celebrate the mistake” dance and singing “Oh we made a mistake & now we get to learn from it!”).
It can be a simple positive acknowledgement.
But first, what are your initial feelings when you discover your child has made a mistake? Surprise, disappointment? How does it normally come out from your body or mouth? Disapproval? Words of frustration or anger? A label or judgment?
Our emotional response of course will be influenced by the severity and the context of the situation surrounding the mistake and our nervous system regulation or dysregulation.
When our child makes a mistake (wherein no human or animal was severely harmed, property damage was minimal - such as a broken vase - and it was not intentional), instead of instantly going into the ‘wrongs’ of what happened, blaming or hurling negativity, here’s my suggested process you could follow:
1. Stop. Breathe. Notice your feelings. Can you acknowledge your thoughts and feelings as they rise up? Name it to tame – what is the feeling?
It's helpful for your child to HEAR your feelings so she can understand her impact on others; for example, let's say your child was jumping on the sofa in the living room, and you've asked her not to as you continue to cook dinner in the kitchen. She miscalculates her catapult jump off the sofa and accidentally knocks the vase off the end-table and it crashes to the floor.
Your nervous system will have a little dysregulation as it determines the level of threat and communicates to your brain. Many of us instantly respond to that initial sense of threat the nervous system gives us and if we have had trauma in the past that involved jumping, glass breaking, or something of this sort, we might have a heightened response.
So, we can practice stopping before launching into anything negative as the initial shock wears off. If it's safe to leave the mess there for a moment, move yourself and the child away form the glass, and then coregulate with your child and process this learning opportunity. It might be a simple acknowledgement of what happened: a possible response could be "Oh my gosh. The vase just broke huh? Are you okay?”
2. Shift: both your physiological state and your subsequent thoughts and words:
We can take our child and ourselves away from the glass and be with each other. Breathing, or using some other coping tools as needed. When everyone is regulated, we can have a more calm conversation.
We could start with feelings.
"I felt scared when I heard the crash. I also feel frustrated and angry because had asked for the jumping to stop. How did you feel when the vase crashed?”
(They are likely to voice tender feelings here like scared, afraid, etc.)
Where in the past we might have launched into the negatives of the experience, instead we ask questions and speak to the truth of the experience:
“Can you tell me what was happening for you when…? The vase broke by mistake, right? Well this is an opportunity to learn. Let’s see what we can do about the vase. Can we explore some ideas? Can we come up with a solution together? Do you have any ideas?”
Another question is “What can we do so that you and the stuff in the house can be safe in the future? Do you have any ideas?” (Kids love to be heard – they want to know their opinions matter…)
When the child does propose a solution that could work try a celebratory tone of voice and affirm the child’s proposed solution: “I like that idea – I feel proud you thought of that!”
Note: It’s crucial that parents don’t do the work for the child to fix the mistake. A child learns self-responsibility, builds self-worth, and enhances her self-belief when she takes the necessary steps to correct mistakes when possible. Of course we can support our child and help if they ask, but to not do it for them…
(P.S. actual solution ideas could be put the vase somewhere else where it’s less likely to be bumped by moving and playing children, designate a no-jump boundary zone and offer an alternative designated jumping zone, offer regular opportunities to diffuse big energy, etc.)
3. Ask the child two important questions: #1 If there is anything they would need to do differently next time? And it’s okay to guide them with questions until they can find an answer to this question. And #2 if there is anything they’d like to say about the situation.
4. Support their answer, and then, if you can reach inside, be in the present moment long enough to see your child as someone who is learning ‘the ropes’ of life, and give them a hug and say “I feel proud of you” and/or “I love you,” it will go a long way to helping them feel supported when they make a mistake. This is the celebration part!! Pride does not just come when our kids do ‘good’ things like win a trophy or certificate. It comes when they process mistakes and failures as healthy experiences for personal growth. You can even go so far as to say “Congratulations on managing your mistake today.”
Note: If the child apologizes which can be an important part of letting go of mistakes – to receive forgiveness from another…As a parent, decide how you want to respond: I’m not a proponent of saying “It’s okay” if it’s not really okay for me at the time – I want to remain in alignment with my values of integrity. Instead I say “Thank you for apologizing. I appreciate you.”
5. Ask your child how he/she feels after this process. Simply asking “How do you feel…?” can encourage the expression of things that might have come up for them as they processed their mistake. You’d be surprised with what might come up…
For example, they might have been feeling super silly and jittery because of the anxious feelings they had all day at school and they tuned you out as they let off steam from their day… Or how their friend had been mean to them, etc. This kind of vulnerability doesn’t come out if we yell at our child for their negative behavior.
For many kids a mistake can feel embarrassing, awkward, and sometimes they may not even know how to process their emotions. But when we, the calm parent are able to go through this 5 step process, and end on a positive note so a child feels supported rather than ‘small’, the child can feel ‘safe’ enough to express their true emotions, whether it be remorse, sadness or even frustration.
By the way parents, what I’m asking here is BIG. I get it. I’m a parent, and the amount responsibility on our plate is massive. So when a mistake was preventable, it can just throw us off our game. We lose our *hit sometimes. I’ve gone through trials like you, the shouting, the reprimand, etc. It only caused me and my child to feel worse afterwards and not much learning took place.
Here's some questions to consider:
Would I rather my child go into self-beat-up mode OR help her see the mistake as an opportunity to learn and do better next time?
Would I rather my child be overly hard on herself OR help her see the growth in the mistake?
Would I rather my child become a perfectionist who is afraid to take risks out of fear of ‘doing it wrong’ OR become someone who goes for it in life and has the skills to manage mistakes effectively to develop high self-esteem?
And my child is worth it.
Now this is the method I have for parents. For kids, I have a 5 step process to learn how to handle mistakes to prevent emotional shut-down or self-beat-up. I give them concrete tools and techniques to handle mistakes, fears and failures.
If you’d like for your child to learn more about this, feel free to reach out: email@example.com.
Here’s what my past clients have said:
“Ashley helped unlock the power and strength that I knew my child had all along, but was too riddled with anxiety and doubt to express it.” – Monica Baker, mother of 10 year old participant
“Ashley does an incredible job with the kids. Her programs provide a ton of value and we noticed an immediate shift in our 9 year old daughter. The techniques and tools are easy to use and we use them all time! Thank you Ashley for your magical presence and ability to guide the children to new heights.” – DeeAnne Reindeau, mother of 9 year old participant