Child is Perfectionist

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: My 7-year-old daughter is such a perfectionist that it's making me crazy. She flips out over every little mistake. One mistake on a math worksheet, and she bursts into tears. When doing writing assignments, if she messes up one letter, she erases it furiously. Then because the paper looks messy, she rips it up and refuses to try again. I worry that this behavior is starting to cause serious problems for her in school, especially her relationships with classmates, who call her a big baby when she falls apart. How can we help her learn to lighten up?

Answer: First, it's important to talk with the teacher and agree on some shared strategies for helping your daughter learn to handle frustration and tolerate imperfection. Those strategies might include the following:

- Emphasize creativity over accuracy when appropriate. For example, the teacher could make it a point to sprinkle in some assignments and activities that engage the children in writing imaginative stories, putting down the ideas as they come to them without worrying about neatness or spelling accuracy.

- Teach your daughter skills for managing her feelings of frustration. Help her learn to recognize the signs when she starts to get upset (for example, butterflies in her tummy or her hands tightening up). Then, when those feelings begin, have her take three deep breaths, count to 10 and say to herself, "It's just a little mistake."

- Notice the times your daughter handles her frustration well and let her know you're proud of the ways she's learning to manage those feelings.

- Be mindful of how you respond when she makes a mistake and how you handle your own mistakes. When there's a spill in the kitchen, calmly say, "Oops, we've got a mess to clean up here." If your daughter does poorly on a math test, just say, "We'll practice those problems together this week, and you'll probably do better next time."

- When your daughter is working on a new skill, recognize her effort and her persistence even in the face of failure. Tell her you're proud of how hard she's trying. And let her see you and other adults trying new things and working through, and even laughing at, your own mistakes.

With time, encouragement and thoughtful coaching at home and at school, your daughter will strike a healthy balance of trying to do her best, while understanding that no one is perfect, and it's normal to make mistakes. But if she continues to be so hard on herself, even after the special encouragement from you and her teacher-and especially if it continues to interfere with her social relationships at school-request that she be evaluated by a school psychologist to see if there is a more serious issue that underlies her behavior.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 3 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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