Archive of ‘Communication’ category

What if making a mistake was okay?:  Addressing perfectionism as a family

student with ADHD

I was inspired by a previous blog post by colleague, Catherine Mok, LCSW, on good enough parenting linked here. Children and the family system can benefit as a whole when the perspective of parents is shifted toward being good enough and away from achieving perfect or ideal parenting. The modeling that is provided through this shift in perspective sends a message to children that trying your best, normalizing mistakes as opportunities to learn, and focusing on being good enough can alleviate the pressure to be perfect. Let us think about this further in the context of supporting children that struggle with trying to achieve perfection.

Defined

When considering the term “perfectionism,” I do want to recognize that mastery and working to master different tasks is developmentally appropriate for children to build confidence and develop their sense of self. There is also positive reinforcement from society and adults in children’s lives for wanting to do well, exerting focused effort, and attention to detail. We will use this moment to reflect on how striving to be “perfect” can show up and get in the way for children and how to support them. 

Concern arises when children show signs of striving for perfection, setting unattainable goals, and internalizing unrealistic standards and expectations for themselves. Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S and founder of the Synergetic Play Therapy Institute explains that unmet expectations register as a threat or challenge to the brain and engage our stress response. For children striving for perfection and holding unrealistic expectations for themselves, this stress response may be constantly engaged. This can show up in many ways where children may verbalize their distress through use of “should” language, critical self-evaluation or self-talk, and verbalizing their unrealistically high expectations. This can also show up, and sometimes more commonly, in behaviors such as limited frustration tolerance for mistakes, becoming dysregulated quickly, or anxiety and avoidance of difficult tasks for fear of making a mistake. It is important to recognize that these thought patterns and behaviors are connected to children’s self-esteem, relationships, and emotional well-being. 

Pause…

Now we can pause to take a deep breath and shift the focus to supporting children and the family system with helpful ways of addressing perfectionistic tendencies.

Validate, always

When approaching a child struggling with self-criticism, unrealistic expectations, and dysregulation in making a mistake, reflecting their feelings and validating their experience can be a safe place to start. Examples may include, “You are worried about making a mistake because you care about doing your best” or “You tried so hard to get it just right and are disappointed/upset that it didn’t go the way you wanted.” The goal here is to connect with the child so that they feel seen and heard which increases their felt sense of safety.

Mistakes as a conversation

Encourage conversations about mistakes with children with a perspective of curiosity and framing mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Families can also model healthy acceptance of mistakes by parents and caregivers sharing their own mistakes out loud. This can normalize and validate a child’s experience of mistakes. This can also be a powerful antidote to shame by hearing that mistakes are accepted, inevitable, and safe topics of conversation (Brené Brown). Practicing vulnerability with children can improve connection throughout the family system and bolster a child’s confidence and belief in their own capability to navigate challenges and mistakes in the future.

Reframing

Powerful reframes in response to self-criticism and striving to be perfect can include: 

  • Encouraging a growth mindset as a learner that includes feedback and practice with improvement over time (UC Davis Health, 2022)
  • Mistakes are opportunities to learn (Dr. Nelsen, 2006)
    • What did I do well and where can I grow?
  • Excitement and support for a child to try again
  • Focus placed on trying and effort rather than the outcome or results

Self-compassion

Finally, practicing self-compassion introduces warmth and understanding from within to alleviate the pressure children place on themselves. What does a child’s self-talk sound like when striving for perfection? It may reflect all-or-nothing thinking and unrealistic expectations such as, “I should/should have…” or “I can’t…” How can caregivers model self-compassion? When caregivers reflect on their own mistakes, they can show self-compassion through positive self-talk that children then observe. When negative self-talk arises for children, encourage more positive and encouraging messages they could tell themselves instead. Examples could include:

 “I tried my best” 

“I care so much about doing well”

“This is hard for me and that is okay”  

“I made a mistake and I am proud that I tried” 

“I am brave for trying something new and challenging”

“I am important, and I belong no matter how many mistakes I make”

modeling self-compassion for perfectionism

References & Resources

  • Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen
  • Synergetic Play Therapy Institute, founder Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S
  • The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
  • Practically Perfect – Addressing Perfectionism in Kids by UC Davis Health
  • Letting Go of Perfect: Empower Children to Overcome Perfectionism by Jill Adelson and Hope Wilson

Regulating Parents’ Emotions So They Can Effectively Regulate Their Child’s Emotions

Something that I believe every parent can benefit from is finding effective ways to regulate their own emotions so that they can help their children regulate themselves.  Parenting is HARD.  It’s chaotic, amazing, exhausting, rewarding, expensive, and wonderful all at the same time.  When we’re stressed out with whatever the day throws at us, it’s easy to take it out on those closest to us.  When we are already crunched for time (because as a parent there’s never enough time in the day), we’re trying to get our child’s lunch ready, the house is a disaster, the baby just woke up, and our child is having big emotions (AKA a tantrum, refusing to help, crying because they want attention, etc. etc.) we tend to yell or take out our frustration on the child.  It’s a very common response to have when faced with this kind of scenario.  Be gentle with yourself mom/dad!  It happens.  But there are ways that we can decrease the frequency of us losing our tempers.  

My hope is that this article can teach parents helpful ways to manage their BIG emotions, so they can be there for their little ones who are having BIG emotions.  An escalated parent CANNOT deescalate an escalated child. Read that again! An escalated parent CANNOT deescalate an escalated child.

1. Take a few deep breaths. 

How does your body feel when you’re beginning to get overwhelmed, stressed, angry, etc.?  Do your shoulders hunch up, your jaw clench, or your forehead furrow?  Notice these signs and take mental note.  THIS is the first step in recognizing when you need to take some deep breaths.  Taking deep breaths will help calm your nervous system and prevent you from acting in a way that you wouldn’t normally.  Stop and notice what your body is telling you. 

2. Remember to think before you act.

Take a few seconds to gather yourself before you respond in a way that you may regret later.  Patience is key when parenting – not only with your children, but also with yourself.  If you are noticing signs of yourself becoming unregulated, change the scenery for you and/or your child/teen.  Go outside, move to another room, allow them screen time (it’s OK to allow it when you yourself need some time to deescalate), suggest they read a book or draw/color.  This change in scenery helps take you and your child/teen out of the upsetting situation which will help them calm down quicker.

3. Tell yourself & kiddo – “Everyone makes mistakes”.

This was one of the most powerful things ever said to me as a child!  Perfection is not possible. Give yourself & kiddo grace, patience, understanding.  Your child/teen is still learning. Even if they know the limits that have been set, they are still learning how to cope with big feelings and sometimes this can cause children/teens to make inappropriate choices. 

Work together with them so you can both understand why they acted in a way that they knew they shouldn’t have.  Use “I wonder” statements.  For example, you can say “I wonder what you need right now”, “I wonder what can be done differently next time”, “I wonder what I can do for you”.  Using “I wonder” statements helps the child/teen stay in their feelings, which is where they naturally are, and continue to process how they are feeling.

Do your best NOT to yell – be there for your child/teen when they are having a hard time.  You can be firm without yelling.  If they are crying, yelling, being aggressive, now is NOT the time to discipline. Wait until they have calmed down for you talk about how to move forward positively.  If they like to be hugged when they are having big feelings, hug them (but keep yourself safe).  If they don’t like to be hugged, do NOT force it.  If they need space, allow them space. 

A few things about limitations/consequences:

  1. Stick to your limitations if they are feasible.  Creating and maintaining limits and consequences communicate to the child/teen that there is safety.  No limits/consequences communicate that they can do whatever they want, which equals little safety.  A child/teen needs to know that there are rules within means
  2. Maybe your limitations/consequences need to be reevaluated.  Perhaps a limit or consequence worked with one child, but doesn’t with the other.  Remember that every person is different, even siblings!  What may have worked for you when you were a child/teen does not mean it will work for your child/teen. 

4. Find another caregiver who is regulated in the home that can take over until you are regulated again.

If you are having a difficult time regulating yourself and there is another caregiver that can take over for you, switch out.  It’s OK to walk away from a situation when you need extra time to take care of yourself.  Return to your child/teen when you feel ready and talk about what happened with them.  Let them know that you love them and that you needed to take a break.  Switching out is much better than losing our tempers and yelling.  The important thing here is to return to your child afterwards to assure them that you love them, explain why you walked away, and acknowledge their feelings as well.

5. If you know your child is going to have a difficult time doing X. Y, or Z, plan to have extra time during these moments so you don’t feel rushed.

Time is a HUGE stressor as a parent.  You’re juggling so many things constantly.  If you can, try to find ways to squeeze in a few extra minutes into situations where you know you will have a battle with your child/teen.  If we don’t feel as much stress about time during these situations, then our ability to maintain a regulated state increases.  We no longer have the thoughts in the back of our minds of, “we’re going to be late again”, “the traffic is going to be so bad”, “I’m going to get dirty looks”, etc.

6. Prioritize your own self-care.  

SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE! Did I mention self-care? Self-care is crucial to our well-being as a person and as a parent.  If we don’t take time for ourselves and we’re always running on “E”, we tend to get resentful with others in our life.  I strongly encourage you to find ways of caring for yourself each and every day.  Whatever that may look like! Maybe for you it’s exercising 30 minutes a day, or going for a walk outside, or watching your favorite show, or finding peace and quiet.  Do whatever you need to do each day.  When we take care of ourselves, we have more bandwidth to be there for others. 


Suicide Prevention: Conversations to Have with Your Teen

Conversations with our teenagers are vital in keeping them healthy and safe. CDC has reported an increase of adolescents who have had a suicidal attempt since 2020, the beginning of the pandemic (CDC, 2021). As a previous school counselor who did a lot of crisis counseling and worked with students who had suicidal thoughts, I want to encourage adults, parents, and educators to have these important conversations with your teens.

Ask the teen how they feel.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but this is the most important thing we can do for our adolescents. Instead of asking about how their day went or about if they finished their homework, ask them how they feel today. You can ask questions like this: “How do you feel about what happened today?” or “How are you feeling today?” or “What are some emotions you feel regarding ____?” Middle and high school students would always tell me that they wish more adults would ask them how they feel instead of only asking them about tasks they need to get done.

Don’t be afraid to ask the teen if they are suicidal.

Many people believe that if they bring up the word “suicide” it is going to suddenly make the teen curious about it. Nope! It’s a myth. Research has proven that bringing up the word will NOT increase the level of suicidal thoughts in a teenager (NAMI, 2020). If a teen is thinking about it, their thoughts about it won’t increase just because someone asks about it. Parents, educators, and adults, please do not be afraid to ask your teen if they are suicidal. Many adolescents just need to be asked this question – so many adults in their life are afraid to ask, so the teen may not have a space to open up about their suicidal thoughts.

If your teen happens to say yes, ask if they have a plan. If they say they have a plan, consider seeking treatment and support, and do not leave them alone. If there are any items that they can use to hurt themselves, remove those items from their reach. During this process, encourage open communication and don’t be judgmental. Immediately reach out to a therapist and/or treatment center and ask for support. For an additional layer of protection, reach out to their school counselor and inform them of this too, so that they can keep an eye out at school. Since adolescents spend most of their time at school, it is important to have an adult at school who is aware of their suicidal thoughts and/or plan. The more eyes we have on our teen, the more we can protect them from doing anything rash.

Ask the teen about any protective factors.

The more hobbies and people the teen cares about, the more likely they are willing to stay alive. Ask about the adolescents’ hobbies, social circles, and values. See if there are any factors that may light up their interests or passions. If they talk about a hobby they enjoy, ask about it often and ask about their thoughts and emotions regarding it. As a therapist, I always start off my conversations with my clients about their protective factors. It helps me to better understand what they enjoy and what keeps them interested in living life. 

Protective factors to ask about:

  1. Hobbies: What do they like to do in their free time? What clubs/sports/extracurriculars are they involved in?
  2. Social circles: Who do they spend time with? Who do they trust? Who would they turn to if they were going through a hard time?
  3. Physical health: Are they eating well? Are they drinking enough water? Are they spending an adequate amount of time exercising?
  4. Purpose/Values: What do they believe in? What do they value? What are some topics that get them stirred up? Do they believe they have a purpose in life?
  5. Self-esteem: What do they think about themselves? Do they believe they have the strength to overcome challenges?

If you have a teen who is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to a therapist immediately. You can find a therapist with immediate openings at Austin Family Counseling by emailing [email protected].

Additionally, there are resources available that can offer immediate support: 

  • Call 988 (suicide hotline number)
  • Call 512-472-HELP (Integral Care Mobile Crisis Team) 
  • Chat with a crisis counselor: https://988lifeline.org/chat/ 

Citations:

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2020/5-Common-Myths-About-Suicide-Debunked

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7024e1.htm?s_cid=mm7024e1_w


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