When perfectionism runs in the family
It is quite common - although worrying - to see children or teenagers trapped in negative self-talk about their achievements ("I am not good enough", "I always fail", "I should have tried more"), their performance ("I am so stupid", "Why do others always get better grades than me?"), their popularity ("I have no friends", "I will be forever alone", "I feel like a burden to my friends"), or their appearance ("I am so fat", I have an ugly face", "No one likes me").
Sooner or later, they start being less sociable, they spend more time in their room, their eating habits change, they are less cheerful and more sad, they get easily irritated and they take everything more personally. This negative self-talk and its symptoms do not indicate a problem per se. We all have some periods when we are over-criticising ourselves, but after a while we're back on track.
However, this tendency for perfectionism is not just a random case, it happens more and more often. So, we are here in order to take a closer look at the patterns that are hiding behind this behaviour.
When perfectionism runs in the family
Being harsh on themselves is something that children didn't consciously choose for themselves. It is behaviour caused through many possible ways:
1. As a coping mechanism to perceived threatening situations
For example, if the family went through some challenging periods or events (from conflicts to divorce or loss), it is possible that children learn to control themselves (a.k.a. to be perfect) so that they can protect the system (not be an extra burden, not upset the parents, etc) but also to create a sense of safety for themselves that is lacking in their environment at the current moment. The same thing applies to external stressful events, like natural disasters, epidemics, and war.
2. Following a pattern
If they have been around perfectionist parents, it's easy for a child to copy that behaviour that is unconsciously modelled by their parents. Perfectionism, in that case, is a set of behaviours and thinking patterns which is displayed by one or both parents, and the children are simply following the pattern.
The perfectionist parent
A "must-be-perfect" mother who tries to excel in her multiple roles as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as a career woman, etc, and all the child hears from her are rules for organising and "I don't have time for that".
A mother who spends her day finishing a complicated project at work or setting up her own business AND at the same time trying to have a dustless and spotless house, AND have homemade food ready, AND prepare the cupcakes for the school party, AND... AND... AND...
All these demands that she has put on herself that she needs to meet in a perfect way. Unfortunately, when it's time to sit with her children and play or read a story, her energy is so drained that she finds no joy in it anymore. And she knows that it is sad that she can't connect with her children at that moment. Perfectionism is highly related to burnout, and a perfectionist mum is at high risk for parental burnout.
Or a "must-be-the-best" father who cares for his children's grades or school performance every day because for him that is proof to society that he is doing a good job as a parent, who works long hours with almost zero work-life balance, who stresses over work, neglects his own self-care and forgets to connect with his family.
But also, a demanding father who doesn't praise his children for their efforts but only when the results are worth it, or who has given up on them because they didn't manage to reach his high standards, who reminds them often of what he went through and what he has been doing for them, so they should appreciate it by trying their best at school.
When children are harsh on themselves, their parents have been doing the same for a long time.
How to get rid of perfectionism
It’s ok to make mistakes. No reason to panic. Once more, parents don't need to be perfect. Trial and error is the most humane thing in the world, so by showing your children that even if you have overlooked something, you are there to correct it, you release them of a big burden of this perfectionism obsession. Your aim is to help them be strong and self-confident so that they can defeat this negative self-talk by themselves, without needing the praise of others.
Let's be realistic
A little bit of a reality check can help avoid the big dramas. "Has it happened before?", "Is it something that we can correct?", and "How realistic were your expectations?" are some questions that can put the self-talk in the right perspective. Parents don't need to go from one extreme to the other, i.e. from over-criticising to over-praising, since the children can perceive that this overcompensation is a panic reaction and an easy way out. Just say things as they are: "Yes, I can see there is some chance of failing, but I can also see some chance of succeeding, if....".
Preparing them for the real world doesn’t mean bombarding them with doomsday messages, but helping them see their strengths so that they can cope when the times are tough.
The Big Picture
Make them see the Big Picture. Praise them when they overcome their self-defeating thoughts by themselves and encourage them to share the process of their thinking with you. Advise them to think a positive thought every time they have a negative one.
We cannot rule out the negative thoughts in our heads. But we can fight them with positive ones and bring more balance to our life.
An 8-year-old boy told me the other day: “I don’t need somebody to yell at me when I make mistakes. I already yell at myself all the time inside my head”. Let’s protect our children from this unhealthy, draining, overwhelming mindset. Perfectionism is possible to change, and we can all learn how to grow and progress without the nasty and harsh self-talk.