When your child feels pressure to be perfect

Can you relate to your child being a perfectionist? I’m going to share a powerful and surprising tip for turning this situation around.

Perfectionism can look like having children who: 

  • are afraid to try new things,
  • say they aren’t good at things,  even 
  • want to know exactly what is going to happen,  
  • feel not good enough, obsess over their performance, or their appearance,

Are you bewildered by why your kids act this way?

I get it. You are careful about what you say to your children, so where do they get these perfectionist beliefs?  

We are rightly alarmed when we see the perfectionism, because we know it’s not going to serve our children well. 

Are you familiar with the concept of the Growth Mindset?
The Growth Mindset is a very important concept that Carol Dweck discovered in her research about 20 years ago.

If your child has a growth mindset, not a fixed one, success will be much more likely (as will be happiness, self-esteem, etc.) 

So what is it? A growth mindset is one where you believe that you can keep learning and growing.

If you have this powerful perspective on life, you don’t see an individual event as a catastrophic failure, even if you did poorly.

You correct and continue, which is one of our Great Parenting Simplified Mindset Mantras.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your basic abilities, intelligence, and talents are fixed traits.

With this debilitating mindset, a failure is often seen as proof that you are deficient at your core. 

With a fixed mindset, self-esteem is so precarious. 

Kids with this mindset don’t want to try new things, as it could show that they are a failure. They want to know what is happening so that they can be sure that they can handle it.

The problem is, for many moms, hearing about the growth mindset becomes yet another thing that we think we have to directly teach our kids.

(Way too many sweet mamas are wracked with fears that they are a bad mom, and sadly aren’t seeing that their self-condemnation is a key part of the problem! Their mindset needs to shift if they are to make lasting changes and be the great parent they were born to be. Our work is all about teaching you how to be gentle on yourself so that you can guide your children to have the growth mindset they need to thrive in our incredibly challenging world.)

How can you dramatically increase the chances that your child will have a growth mindset? 

What parent doesn’t want the equivalent of insurance against so many challenges like mental illness, and a tool that helps your child to have the resilience he or she needs to thrive?

A massive error gets so often made by mamas when we don’t first apply the growth mindset information on ourselves.

Your anxiety about not being a perfect mom is intrinsically linked with whether your child has a growth versus fixed mindset.

Regardless of what we consciously say to our kids, if we are anxious about their development, we will be unconsciously communicating that to them. 

How does your anxiety about not being a great mom show up in your kids? 

To answer, I first want you to think back to what it was like when you were a child.  Were you aware of your mom’s feelings about her parenting? Was she relaxed and confident, playful and present, anxious and stressed or depressed? 

My mom was very stressed for most if not all of my childhood. In fact I learned some of the codependence that set me up for a very challenging marriage because I was trying to save her from a very young age.

I did crazy things like copied out all of the recipes in her mish mash of a recipe box, onto their own cards so that she’d find them easy to find, etc. Unfortunately her reaction was to say that now she couldn’t find any of her recipes, something I understand now, but was crushing to hear as an elementary student who had labored over this project for weeks. 

(Co-dependence refers to having troubles keeping our own boundaries, because we collapse what we need in order to please someone else).

My self-esteem was very low. That set me up for so many challenges, including being taken advantage of sexually at the ripe age of 12 and then again at 14. (My blog post, Mother’s Day Blues, talks more about this, and the resulting pregnancy at 14.) 

Lots of my poor self esteem was because she was very poor at taking care of herself. 

We are creating the equivalent of psychological air for our children.

Just like fish can’t help but absorb the toxins in the water, if we have a fixed mindset like I did when I started parenting, our kids will too.

If we are beating ourselves up about our mistakes with our kids, instead of being gentle and curious about what support we need to make changes, our kids can’t help but pick up that energy.  

The solution?

By all means, in the moment it can be helpful to gently correct your child’s words. But the outward signs of their perfectionism are just the tip of the iceberg.

To actually change their beliefs, you have to change yours. So my surprising tip is:

Aim for Bs as a Mom.

Over the decades, parents’ expectations of themselves have gone from reasonable, eg to raise a decent human being, to unreasonable, eg to raise a high achieving, happy, well rounded child. 

We’ve become obsessed with our children’s results.

We see our children’s behavior and achievements of signs of OUR worth.  We aren’t seeing childhood anymore as a time to play, to experiment and to make mistakes all over the place. 

What I want you to do is to start aiming to be a good enough mom. 

It’ll rock your children’s world if you do. 

How did I learn to aim for Bs?

Remember my unpromising start? Well in college, it should come as no surprise that I started to bomb out. Many gifted kids struggle with handling not being at the top of the class. I studied this phenomenon when I was a public school board trustee. (Anxiety and depression in college has become massive, and gifted students dropping out is common, as are them having mental health issues.)

Fortunately, after the death of my younger brother, I was broken enough to reach out for counseling help. She was able to convince me to Aim for Bs, in part by showing me a powerful article called The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat by Dr. David Burns. I was debating dropping out anyway, so I was finally willing to lower my standards.

Burns talks about studies that show that ultra performers know how to set lower expectations in order to get better results.

Why is it better to aim for Bs? How much more likely are you to get into action when you do? How is your mental health affected when you aim for As in an environment where they are almost impossible?

I went on to be a straight A student after learning this tip. I kept refocusing on Bs though, and celebrated every B or above, which meant that suddenly school was FUN!

When I became a parent, I had to relearn this powerful tool, in order to get out of the pit of depression I’d sunk when I found myself overwhelmed and unable to maintain the standards I so desperately wanted to achieve with my kids.

For the last 2 decades, I’ve been teaching mom how to do the same, with incredible results.

5 thoughts on “When your child feels pressure to be perfect

  1. Aiming for Bs is such a sanity saver! And it actually gives you BETTER results! It is so hard to let go of perfectionism, though. I’ve been working on it for years, and I’m happily a work in progress. 🙂

    1. I love that you are still happily working on this Joanna! It’s the path less traveled for sure, and so much more fun, isn’t it?

      I still find areas where I am being perfectionistic… like with my university class! I handed in something recently that I took a long time on, and was confused as can be about how it was supposed to be done. I got at least a B:). (She gave me 88%, which I assume is a B!) And I celebrated like crazy!!

  2. I, too, am aiming for B’s and what also helped me to get there was the wall of futility that I crashed into and the tears that followed when I couldn’t keep it up anymore. Perfectionism is a form of self-abuse and even though I thought I knew better, I still did it and can do it in various forms. What also helped me to see the danger was when I got help for my son when he was in second grade (now ten years ago). He had a great play therapist (male and a terrific emotions coach which I certainly was not at that point). I can’t remember the exact scenario that set the scene for this, my seven year old son turned to me and said, “Mom, you expect me to be perfect…” I held it together long enough to have my cry in private now realizing full well that I modeled that for him, expected it of him and it was one of reasons he was in play therapy and having such a hard time. I am a recovering perfectionist…I know that. I come by it honestly. In first grade I showed my report card to my father. At that time, we received numeric grades and I had all 99’s and one 96. He smiled at me and said you did great but what happened that you got a 96? I honestly don’t remember any other report cards from any year in detail. I was an excellent student but my memory of that scene is like a snapshot from a camera. I have other stories which are different but the theme is the same. GPS has really helped me internalize aiming for B’s and it has had a positive effect on my life and that of my family!

    1. Your words are almost a mirror of what my mom shares about how her grades were received. Thank you so much for posting Karen! It’s an honor to be on this journey with you. Together, we will imperfectly progress as recovering perfectionist!

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