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On Parenting: When a perfect story is a regular thing

Q. My 7-year-old daughter is bright enough that many things come pretty easily for her, but when they don’t, she gets frustrated and quits. She won’t practice or work at anything – even fun stuff like riding a bike – because she’s not perfect the first time, and to her that’s unacceptable. If she’s encouraged to keep trying, she’ll eventually storm off in frustration and continue to beat herself up over not being able to do it. We’ve tried modeling acceptance of imperfection in our own behavior, we’ve tried praising effort instead of achievement, reminding her of past successes (“You couldn’t do a flip on the monkey bars the first 20 times, remember? And now it’s your favorite thing!”). Hugs, nurturing, reminders that we’ll always love her, etc. only seem to make her even angrier, but backing off doesn’t help her feel better, either. This fear of even the smallest failure has her hamstrung in a lot of areas, and at school it often causes her anxiety and embarrassment when she can’t control her frustration. How can we help her learn to keep plugging away and get her over the hurdle?

A: Ah, perfectionism. Not just the paralyzing domain of children, I have also seen adults suffer terribly from perfectionism. So, let’s decode perfectionism a little.

Whether in an adult or a 7-year-old girl, perfectionism is a very useful feeling for humans. In trying to make everything “just right” or quitting when the going gets tough, the human brain avoids a great deal of uncomfortable feelings. Perfectionism is the brain’s way of defending itself against feeling out of control and, in essence, vulnerable.

Vulnerability is tough for brains. That’s because our brain is mostly made up of areas that want to protect us, both physically and emotionally. Back in the day, when we were out hunting on the plains, there was no time to relax. It was eat or be eaten, and the world was truly a dangerous place. The brain was constantly scanning the environment, assessing for danger and yes, failure. Fast-forward several thousand years, and we still have these brains.

This part of our brain still overreacts to real and perceived dangers – and most dangers in our world now, lucky for us, are just perceived.

Your daughter cannot ride a bike just right the first time? The brain yells, “THESE FEELINGS ARE NOT GOOD! STOP THEM IMMEDIATELY!” And true to form, your daughter shuts them down. The more we push or cheerlead or distract, the more her brain reads this as, “I know what you are trying to do here. You are trying to get me to feel all of my feelings! Forget it!” And she digs in. Her brain is protecting her.

Your letter demonstrates that you are clearly caring parents and that the many strategies you are trying are not working for you. That’s because, simply, we can’t skip the hard parts of feeling vulnerable. At least, we can’t skip them and grow into our fullest potential.

Your daughter is scared of feeling out of control, so you must safely and slowly allow her to feel out of control.

No more praising, cheerleading, reminding her of past successes.

If you pause and reflect on this, praising, cheerleading and all the other strategies are all pointing toward one thing: outcomes. Do the monkey bars, get on the bike, finish the homework, be happy.

Shift focus to letting her feel uncomfortable and worried and sad and out of control.

Show your daughter that she can make it through these feelings and that you are not going to go anywhere. You are going to be there, 100 percent, to listen and hug – not to change or lessen or mitigate the feelings. In doing so, you are going to make room for discomfort. Why? Because, as developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld said, the more room you give a feeling, the less space it takes up.

Remember that this path is on her schedule, not yours. You can do everything “right” and by the book, but your daughter’s growth will happen when she is ready. This requires you to remain steady and confident. She can come out of this with earned resilience and the confidence to know that hard feelings can be experienced, that there is nothing to be scared of and that she can handle scary feelings.