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When children fear failure, they often resist trying new things and taking healthy risks. In the long term, perfectionism is associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and physical illness.
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So how can we help children counter their harsh inner critics? To develop the self-compassion needed for a happy, healthy life?
The good news is, children can learn to overcome perfectionistic traits with some support and practice!
Below are 7 simple ways to help your child combat perfectionism, and nurture a healthy self-image.
1. Redefine Success
Children who have a growth mindset are more likely to maximize their potential. They view their successes as a result of effort and strategies rather than fixed traits like their intelligence or abilities.
Children who adopt a growth mindset recognize the chance for growth and learning when struggles or failures arise.
“When your child makes a mistake, view this as an opportunity to teach them how to try different strategies if the first ones don't work—how to step back and think about what to try next, like a ‘detective solving a mystery.’”
-Psychologist Carol Dweck
Read books, tell stories, and watch shows in which characters grow from their failures and mistakes. Books like The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires or Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg define success as trying, failing, and figuring out a new plan.
Check out our Top 85 Growth Mindset Books for Children and Adults for more stories about reframing success (and failure).
Finally, consider prompting your child to write a letter to a friend who has experienced a recent failure or setback. In the letter, your child can explain growth mindset and tell their friend how success means growing from challenges.
2. Challenge their Thinking
Children who struggle with perfectionism tend to have unforgiving and distorted thoughts about themselves. They often focus on the negatives and discount the positives.
When your child’s perfectionistic thinking takes hold, work to stay calm. Inhale a deep breath, and recognize this opportunity to show patience and understanding. (Tip: It’s helpful to practice calming strategies with your child in advance of tricky moments. Check out our awesome “When I Feel Upset…” visual for more ideas)
Empathetic comments like “I can see you’re angry because you want this to be perfect” or “I know how hard it is to feel you’ve made a mistake” can be impactful.
Then, when your child is more settled, have them reflect on one or more of the following questions:
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
- What is a more positive way to think about this?
- What part of my problem could I solve now?
For more helpful ideas, check out “7 Ways to Address Your Child’s Negative Self-Talk.”
3. Explain the Brain Muscle
Just as our muscles get stronger with physical exercise, our brains strengthen from facing challenges.
Talk with your child about his brain and its incredible power to grow and develop. Remind him that brains are constantly changing and learning from new experiences.
Children benefit from viewing stumbles and struggles as an essential part of learning. When we make an error, our brains spark and grow--and we actually learn faster.
“Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.”
-Psychologist Carol Dweck
Remind children they can choose to “grow their brains” and learn anything they want--using effort and persistence.
4. Talk About Your Mistakes
Let your child know that everyone makes mistakes. Remind them we often learn more from our mistakes and failures than we do from our successes.
A simple way to combat your child’s unrealistic self-expectations is by pointing out your mistakes. Talk about your problems in real-time (“Oops! I just added too much flour to this recipe!”) and how you are addressing them.
“One of the most meaningful gifts a parent can give to a child is to acknowledge their own mistake, to say, ‘I was wrong here’ or ‘I’m sorry.’ This is so powerful because it also gives the child permission to make a mistake. To admit having messed up and still be okay.”
-Dr. John Gottman
Share stories of past failures, like the time you got lost driving and ended up late to a job interview or failed a test. Explore how it made you feel, and what you learned from the experience.
Conversely, when your child shares a mistake, comments like, “That sounds frustrating for you” or “ I’ve felt that way too, and it’s hard for a while” can help them feel connected to your imperfections.
Be sure to check out our Famous Failures Kit, a printable set of worksheets highlighting famous people from around the world who have failed and struggled on their way to success.
5. Focus on Learning from Mistakes
New research from Michigan State University revealed the power of learning from mistakes. In the study, children with growth mindsets showed a large brain response after making errors and were more likely to improve their performance as a result.
Interestingly, the study also showed that children with fixed mindsets could bounce back from mistakes. But only if they paid close attention to their errors. The current findings suggest that when children with fixed mindsets attend to their errors, they may still be able to recover as well as their growth-minded peers.
So how do we help children notice and learn from their mistakes?
Rather than ignoring or shying away from addressing errors, give children the opportunity to figure out what went wrong. Prompts like, “Let’s pay attention and figure out what happened” or “Mistakes are opportunities—let’s explore this together” are good places to start.
6. Reframe Grades
Grades are not reflections of who your child is, but where they are at that moment. Ultimately, it’s the progress that matters.
Parents and educators may wonder whether the practice of grading discourages a growth mindset. But we can view grades as a reflection of improvement and learning rather than defining a child’s ability.
Talk with your child about how grades do not predict the future or their potential. Grades reflect past performance only and can give us important information on how we learn.
Rather than dwelling on grades, encourage your child to ask questions like, “What would I do differently this time?” or “What can I do to achieve a different score in the future?”
Tests can bring anxiety, stress, and self-esteem issues. Let's help our kids know they are MORE than a test score. Our No Stress Test poster available in the Self-Esteem & Confidence Kit is perfect to hang up in your home or classroom as a reminder!
7. Encourage Self-Compassion
From a young age, children are told to be nice to others. But we rarely teach kids how to be kind to themselves.
When facing failure, children need access to the kind, loving voice within more than ever. You can help your child understand self-compassion with books like Listening with My Heart by Gabi Garcia or Moody Cow Learns Compassion by Kerry Lee MacLean.
Next, brainstorm the words we like to hear from friends or parents when we fail or make a mistake. Your child could ask himself, “What would a good friend tell me about this?” or “What would my mom say?”
Also, encourage your child to journal about an experience that didn’t go as hoped, and how he could show self-compassion in that situation. Writing a kind letter to himself about what he learned is another great option. The 5-Day Self-Love Challenge, available in the Challenges Kit, has simple but powerful activities to help your child learn self-compassion.