Anxiety in Children – 10 Practical Strategies to Help Kids Manage Perfectionism

Anxiety in Children - 10 Practical Strategies to Help Kids Manage Perfectionism

An anxious mind is also a beautifully creative, imaginative mind. This is a great thing, except for when that imagination and creativity is being used to imagine outcomes that feel unbearable, however unlikely they may be. These thoughts of what ‘could’ happen, drive self-talk, which in turn directs behaviour towards doing whatever is necessary to avoid a bad outcome. Hello perfectionism.

When perfectionism takes hold, it’s not so much with a gentle, ‘I’ll be over here in case you need me’, kind of way, but more in a, ‘oooohhh let me stay with you and protect you and never let you go’, kind of way. Perfectionism can be relentless, and although it can be helpful, it can also be suffocating – and so exhausting!

Just to be sure … What does perfectionism look like?

As with everything our children do, something is only a problem if it’s causing a problem. The behaviours that drive perfectionism might be different depending on the child, but here are some of the common ones;

  • Refusing to try anything new or unfamiliar (to avoid failing or making a mistake).
  • Difficulty completing work, or being slow to finish (because of constant checking or repeating to make sure there are no mistakes).
  • Procrastination – because it’s easier sometimes not to start than to face the possibility of failure.
  • More likely to ask for help rather than try it themselves first. Asking for help is a strength, and we don’t want to discourage that, but if the request for help is driven by a fear of getting it wrong, it can be stifling and get in the way of being brave and taking life-giving risks.
  • Giving up or becoming distressed, angry, irritable or upset if they make a mistake, or if they believe that whatever they are working on might be less than perfect.
  • Tendency to think in all or nothing terms – if it isn’t perfect, it’s bad/wrong/stupid.
  • Tendency to be self-critical.

There’s something about perfection that doesn’t feel that perfect. Actually, it can feel kind of … awful.

There will always be parts of us that shimmer and parts that feel creased and imperfect. We need all of them. Failing and falling are a part of being human so the avoidance of them is an impossible task. It’s also a potentially damaging one. The chase for perfection quite often comes with self-criticism, fear of negative evaluation, and a propensity to feel shame when things don’t work out as planned. In short, perfectionism tramples over whole-hearted living, it suffocates healthy risk-taking, it halts progress so wrinkles can be smoothed out (and out and out), it limits discovery and it stunts growth. 

Not only is the chase for perfection a hopeless, tiresome one, it’s also vastly unnecessary. If only our kids could know how beautifully ‘everything’ they are because of their imperfections, not despite them.

But everything has a flipside.

Perfectionism can hold children back, but beneath perfectionistic tendencies will be the makings of great grit, determination, and a fearless chase for the things that feel important. The key is to nurture these traits, while at the same time turning down the behaviours that stifle them. That’s where you come in.

  1. Let it be about being brave, rather than being right/ brilliant/ excellent (because brave is all of those things).

    Courage is a rich, luminescent quality that will help move our children through the tough stuff that comes their way. Failure or mistakes can steal any of us for a while, but it takes courage to dust off and try again, or to let go and move forward with grace and readiness for the next opportunity.

  2. Provide opportunities for failure.

    Hard things take time to learn and to master. Even when the lessons are learned and the skills are sorted, the polish can take even longer still. No wonder being a kid is so busy! Gentle comments about their effort and the difficulty of the task can help to strip any fear or shame that can come with failure or unexpected endings. Try something like, ‘Being a goalie can be tricky some days can’t it. I love how hard you worked to at it today.’ This will also strengthen their connection with you, which in turn will increase their feelings of warmth and safety and the likelihood of brave behaviour and healthy risks. Some children will feel that failure is unsafe regardless of how open and generous parents are in the face of failure. Whatever we can do to give our children the opportunity to learn that failure and mistakes are a part of growth, not the end of it, will make failure less likely to end in feelings of inadequacy. When failure or mistakes become a source of shame, their curiosity will be stifled, their emotional resources will be taxed, and they will be more likely to avoid challenge. Offering kids the opportunity to feel safe in the thick of failure will give them the precious opportunities they need to learn how to get back up again, stronger and braver than before. 

  3. Strip the power from their shame – and give it back to them.

    Perfection is driven by the need to avoid the shame that might come with missing a beat. Shame is a big beasty thing that can have the toughest of us scrambling for cover. The most powerful way to strip shame is to bring the story that fuels it into the open. Shame thrives on secrecy and on our stories staying hidden. When we talk, we get ‘proof’ that even when we fall, fail or stumble, we’re still doing okay – sometimes even better than okay. Encourage the conversation around imperfect moments, and hold back from judgement, criticism, or helping them to feel better. They’ll feel better when they see it’s no big deal, and that they’re still your heroes. Let them sit with how it feels to own their imperfections in a safe, secure, loving environment – without self-blame, without pity, and without being talked out of how they feel. This will help them learn that imperfections don’t change how great they are, how loved they are, and how capable they are.

  4. Let their imperfect moments connect with yours.

    If you can access your own feelings around your own imperfections, it will help you to connect into your child’s. Try something like, ‘That sounds disappointing for you. That’s happened to me and it’s upsetting for a while isn’t it.’ When the people we adore are struggling, it’s understandable that we would want to ‘fix’ their hurts and polish the sharp edges away, but we don’t need to. Sometimes the greatest thing we can do is keep our own discomfort in check for long enough so they can make the discoveries that will build them.

  5. Encourage self-compassion. It’s not the thought that does damage, it’s the way they respond to it.

    When children have rigid ideas of how things (or they) ‘should’ be, trouble can strut in like a rock star to a stage. The antidote to this is self-compassion. When children (or any of us) respond to setbacks with self-compassion, the way forward is easier. Self-compassion requires courage. It involves acknowledging the parts of ourselves and our story that feel difficult, and moving towards them with acceptance and an open heart. To exercise self-compassion, we first need to avoid the tendency which is wired deeply into many of us, to blame, avoid, and distract. These are completely understandable responses – it’s how we protect ourselves from the pain of disappointment, but they can keep us stuck. Research has found that self-compassion turns down the volume on perfectionism. Kristen Neff, a leader in self-compassion research has identified three parts to self-compassion

    •  self-kindness – as opposed to self-criticism. ‘I made a mistake. That’s okay. I’ll get it next time,’ or, ‘That didn’t turn out the way I thought. What can I learn from this?’;
    •  connection to our common humanity – seeing our experiences as part of being human, rather than a sign of our own deficits or failings. Nurture this by encouraging open, non-judgemental, compassionate conversation about mistakes and setbacks (yours and theirs);
    •  mindfulness – letting painful thoughts and emotions come and go, rather than attaching more meaning to the thought or feeling than it deserves. 

  6. Imperfection – it’s an unexpected buddy.

    Kids need to understand that life will be punctuated with delicious highs and miserable lows. As loving parents, there can be an enormous drive to protect our children from disappointment. Sometimes though, a healthy level of protection can nudge into the zone of ‘over-protecting’. We’re parents and we’re human – it’s going to happen. Healthy living involves being able to learn from the downs as much as celebrating the highs. Whenever you can, give them the space to feel their feelings, even the confusing ones. This might inflame your own anxiety – it’s always difficult seeing someone we love in distress – but if we can hold back from the push to rescue them (or ourselves), we can provide them with opportunities to learn that the uncomfortable feelings that come with failure aren’t always a reason to hold back from being brave. If we can leave the door ajar just a little for these feelings, it makes way for our children to learn that any bad feelings that come with imperfection will never last long. There is no need to ‘fix’ the feelings that are pushing against them. Instead, try a gentle acknowledgement and let time and their own emotional resilience do the rest. Try something like, ‘It sounds as though you’re disappointed. An ‘A’ meant a lot to you didn’t it. It feels pretty miserable when things don’t go to plan – I really get it’.

  7. Here’s how I see you. (And I love what I see.)

    Like the rest of us, kids can take their results as a reflection of themselves. Help that image to be a strong, nourishing one by helping them focus on the process rather than the outcome. ’I love how hard you worked on that. You had some great ideas for your assignment.’ Validate their point of view, ‘You want to do well in this don’t you’, and then offer another one, ‘I can see how hard you’re working.’ By doing this, they can discover that imperfection doesn’t change the good in them. They can make mistakes and be hardworking, determined, brave, and strong. Imperfection is something that happens at one point in time and it doesn’t cancel out how great they are.

  8. How would you treat a little version of you?

    There is a small child in all of us, even adults. It’s the playful, adventurous part – the seeker of love, security and a soft place to fall into when the world feels tough. Even though we might not be aware of this part of us, it’s there and it’s powerful. Our kids won’t always be able to get the compassion or tenderness they need from the world, but they can get it from themselves. This is a skill that will strengthen them from the inside out, and nurturing it will happen through conversation. First, shine a light on the things they say to themselves when they are feeling ‘not good enough’ or when they’re worried about being not good enough. ‘What goes through your mind when you think about not getting an ‘A’?’ These messages are powerful and they’re often automatic and out of our awareness. Bringing them out into the open is a powerful way to stop them being such a heavy influence on behaviour. When your child has a handle on those messages, ask them how they would feel if they saw someone saying that to a small child. How would the small child would feel? Would it make it easier for the little person to do his or her best or would it make it more difficult? What might be a better thing to say? What could you say to help that small child feel more confident, braver, and stronger? 

  9. Accountability for the consequences of perfection.

    Perfection has fallout – stress, snapping, withdrawal, tardiness. We only have so much to give, and when we are giving so much to one thing, other things will feel the strain of this – friendships, relationships in the family, the capacity for fun, discovery, healthy risk-taking, curiosity. Although perfection tends to come with the best intentions, it can also drive rigidity and inflexibility, and it can cause the wrong things to be given priority. 

  10. Remind them that they have the right to get it wrong as many times as it takes.

    They have the right to get it wrong, to discover the edges of what feels comfortable and explore beyond it. As parents, one of the greatest things we can do to help them move forward is to give them the space to own any mistakes they might make. When we criticise, judge, or tell them ‘I told you so’ (and how many times have I wanted to do that!) we make it more difficult for them to explore their mistakes as they will feel even more under pressure to defend them. Nobody wants to feel like an idiot. Not a three-year old, a ten-year old, a forty-year old or an eighty-year old. The less we can make them feel that way, the more likely it is that they will learn and find their way with strength through any mess that gets in their way.

And finally …

As parents, it’s important that we also keep our own tendencies towards perfection in check. Kids will always learn more of what we do than what we say. When we, as parents show our children that we lovingly accept the ebbs and flows that will come with their adventure through childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, we give them the power to do the same. This freedom is life-giving, and will flourish their capacity to explore their place in the world, learn from their mistakes, and find what lights them up from the inside out.


A Book for Kids About Anxiety …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations. (See here for the trailer.)

 

 


9 Comments

Michelle

It is humbling and beautiful to gain insight to myself while seeking help for my kids. No wonder they are who they are!
Thank you for writing this article.

Reply
Janice M

Wow! This is such a great article. Very often parents are driven by the need to teach perfection, which results in a child fear of sharing his/her struggles. Most importantly, it negatively impacts his/her assertive communication skills.

Reply
Adriane

thank you so much for writing this. My six year old has always been a perfectionist but Kindergarten has amplified it. He is so disappointed and upset of he misses just one question on a test or won’t build Legos other than exactly by the book. Coloring is even worse! Thank you so much for more insight into this subject.

Reply
Carolyn Stein

Over the years I’ve read so many books and articles about perfectionism, but nothing about how to live with it and support those around you, who are also struggling. Thank you so much for your practical and sensitive suggestions of things to say or do.

Reply
Claudia

Wow! So much insight into my own life as well as my children. Thank you! I’ll be rereading this many times, as I think through my past and present reactions, and move forward with ( hopefully) more grace and understanding.

Reply
Joanne

What a perfect time to read your article, I have a daughter whom is doing her Yr12 VCE at the moment whom is a perfectionist and her anxieties are rearing again. We are seeking professional help, however the system is very slow. At least my daughter recognisers her anxiety patterns and has asked for the support. I allow her to off load her many emotions and try not to always give her the answers. Most of the time she needs acknowledgement and a big momma hug and all is good once agin. What a journey we travel in our lives. Thank you for this I needed a little reminder regarding some good strategies to use.

Reply

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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