Your daughter is terrified of making mistakes. She sees failure as the ultimate catastrophe. She avoids completing assignments and trying new things. She fears being embarrassed. She gives up easily. She spends extra time on homework and regularly rewrites her assignments. She doesn’t raise her hand in class because she’s scared of being wrong. She has a meltdown when things don’t go as planned.
She says things like: I got a 70 percent on my spelling, science, English, math or history test, which means I’ll never learn to spell or understand science, English, math or history. She clings to worst-case scenarios: What if I forget all the material and fail the final? What if my teacher hates my essay? What if everyone thinks I’m stupid and laughs at me?
According to child and adolescent psychotherapist Katie Hurley, LCSW, these are signs that your elementary school-aged daughter is a perfectionist. Hurley features these signs, along with wise advice on navigating perfectionism, in her latest book No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.
Some girls demand perfection from themselves and set sky-high standards. If they don’t meet these standards, they fall apart. Some girls think that others expect them to be perfect. They yearn to make their parents proud and to earn their approval.
Not surprisingly, this can lead to depression and anxiety. But anxiety isn’t just a consequence of perfectionism; it’s a cause, too. “Perfectionistic kids are worried kids”—even though they might not seem like it, Hurley writes. Instead, they might seem stubborn, irritable or lazy. Many girls tell Hurley they also feel hopeless.
There are other problems with perfectionism. Girls who yearn to be perfect miss out on playing and connecting to their peers and loved ones. They miss opportunities to learn and grow. They don’t seek help because they fear being seen as incompetent.
Thankfully, parents can do many things to help their daughters overcome or reduce their perfectionistic ways. Here’s a range of excellent tips and insights from Hurley’s excellent book.
Explore your own relationship with perfection. Hurley suggests asking yourself these questions: Am I overly critical of myself? How do I handle failure? Do I focus on my kids’ grades and performance?
Hurley also stresses that sometimes your daughter’s perfectionism is simply her personality. She sees many parents who are baffled about their daughters’ behaviors, because they don’t put pressure on their kids or themselves. My parents didn’t either, yet that didn’t stop me from locking myself in my room and refusing to eat dinner until I finished all my homework.
Name perfectionism (and anxiety) for your daughter. Give your daughter a name for what she’s struggling with. Help her understand what perfectionism and anxiety are, and where they stem from. Hurley always tells young girls that if they can name it, then they can deal with it.
For instance, she shares a helpful script for explaining perfectionism: “Some kids and even some grown-ups, have a voice inside of them that tells them to do everything perfectly. It makes them really critical of themselves and of other people. When this happens, kids feel unhappy and very worried. It also makes kids feel like mistakes are really awful and scary. It takes the fun out of everything we do!”
Celebrate mistakes. Teach your daughter that mistakes don’t mean “I’m wrong,” but rather “I’m learning.” Point out and even celebrate your own mistakes. As Hurley writes, “I can’t tell you how many fits of laughter have resulted from my daughter helping me correct my typos or how many little girls have sat on my couch and soaked up every word when I share a story of a simple, everyday mistake (like forgetting to take the trash out and having overflowing trash cans for a week that invited a family of raccoons to practically move in).”
Teach your daughter to rethink her thoughts. Girls who struggle with perfectionism hold many cognitive distortions. They might exaggerate minor mistakes and leap to conclusions. Help your daughter scrutinize her thoughts and reframe them. Help her zoom out and examine what factors contributed to a negative event.
According to Hurley, “I failed my math test. I’m terrible at math” can be replaced with: “I was tired and unprepared for the test. I can ask for help and study more for the next one.”
Help your daughter see the big picture. Perfectionism makes kids hyper-focus on tiny things: one test, one assignment, one soccer game. Hurley suggests having your daughter draw the big picture for her long-term goals. For instance, if your daughter wants to make the club soccer team, she’d draw steps like practicing, playing on the town team, learning the rules of the game and taking restful breaks.
This helps your daughter cope with the inevitable ups and downs. As Hurley writes, “you can’t always play the perfect game, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach your overall goals.”
Teach your daughter to refocus on her inner beauty. This exercise involves creating a life-size collage. Buy some large paper, and trace the outline of your daughter’s body. Ask her to think about the unique things her body helps her do.
One of Hurley’s clients filled her head with images of books and art supplies. She filled her heart with family and friends. And she filled her legs with soccer, running and bike riding.
Have your daughter keep two journals. One journal is between you and her, where she writes about any difficult thoughts and feelings and you respond. Many of Hurley’s clients use this daily. For instance, they write a note before bed, and get a response from Mom or Dad in the morning.
The second journal is an affirmation journal to combat negative thoughts and worries. Encourage your daughter to write before bed about her strengths, goals and the best part of her day, so she ends her day on a positive note.
Perfectionism may be part of your daughter’s personality but that doesn’t mean she has to struggle with it. Fortunately, you can step in and teach her different, healthier approaches—and maybe even learn a lot yourself.