How To Help A Perfectionist Child
Saying, “That’s OK. It doesn’t have to be perfect,” does not help a perfectionist child.
If reassurance doesn’t help, what does? That’s what the mother of a 12 YO perfectionist daughter asked. My answer applies to all ages.
“My biggest issue is my precious 12 year old girl. She is a delight with a heart of gold and a perfectionist — however that is her down fall. She takes what people say to heart, even when not true, and will make herself sick physically and emotionally when she messes up…Basically, she is me.
I HATE seeing her like this. I know first I have to start at home and let her know that it is OK to mess up, to cry and show emotion and to be herself even if others don’t like it. What do I do?”
You said you feel like the most urgent thing is to start at home to help her bring acceptance to herself. Bringing acceptance is always a good thing to do. You can start doing that right away by validating her need to be perfect, because to her it is extremely important, if not urgent, to be perfect.
I know it may sound backwards, but from a perfectionist child’s point of view, being told it is OK to mess up, show emotion and not care what her friends think, is telling her she is wrong to be herself, even if that is not your intention. Then I would also suggest that you apply the same validation approach to yourself because of the instant relief it can bring.
Here’s why: The normal human reaction to being told you are wrong is to become defensive and prove that you are right. You are proving it to yourself as much as to the person who criticized you, tried to fix you, or told you that you were wrong. Though subconsciously driven, even getting sick over messing up can serve as proof, as in “See, I even get sick when I mess up. What else do I need to do to prove that being perfect really is important?!!”
Acceptance is the missing element in shifting perfectionism from an anxiety-ridden malady to a gift of excellence. Once she knows it’s OK to be the way she is (no matter what that is), she can naturally start to relax about it.
Validation can make a big difference fast!
Validation is not agreement or encouragement. It is understanding that sounds like this:
“You really wanted that to be perfect! You tried so hard and still messed up. You are afraid that everything is ruined. No wonder you are upset! That’s not how you wanted it!”
As a perfectionist yourself, you have special insight into what she is experiencing. Validation gives her permission to be who she thinks she needs to be, do what she thinks she needs to do, and feel the way she feels — all the things you want for her and yourself. Self-love and self-acceptance allow comments from others to roll off.
When you have your own approval, you don’t need to get it from others.
The rules for validation are: no fixing, no judging (good or bad), no teaching, no questions. This is the step of connection. The details and two steps for providing guidance are explained in my book, SAY WHAT YOU SEE. When you leave out fixing, judging, teaching, and questions, all that’s left is pure understanding and compassionate listening. It’s the key to reconnecting with her and with yourself, and it’s the missing step that will allow her to have a much needed cry about how hard it is to do everything right.
You can’t change her mind,
but with validation, she can.
Total validation allows people to drop their defenses and start to look inward for the thoughts and beliefs that are creating the feelings of pressure. When those thoughts and beliefs are finally found and validated, you and your daughter will be on the path to some much needed relief and self-acceptance, and be more open to seeing perfectionism as a strength.
Note: This Q&A is based on an answer I provided in the public comments of Rachel Macy Stafford’s Hands Free Mama viral blog post: The Bully Too Close To Home and shared with her permission.
A reader asked this follow-up question: “Am I not to point out errors? What would be a better way to address them?” You can read my answer here: How to Correct a Perfectionist Child