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