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Mythbusting Perfectionism, Part 2 of 2

Does your child get embarrassed easily or have a tough time with any kind of criticism? Does s/he have low confidence, a hard time in social situations, or a tendency to “put off today what can be done tomorrow?” If so, it’s possible that you may have a young perfectionist in your midst! This is part two of our blog series discussing where perfectionism comes from and how to combat it. If you haven't read part one, click here to check it out.

How does perfectionism start? Well, it’s likely that it begins in the home. If your child is a perfectionist, ask yourself if s/he may have picked it up from you. When you ask your child to do a chore, do you chide them if it’s not done to a perfect standard, or are you willing to accept when something is “good enough?” I’m not suggesting that we never raise our standards, but rather that we have an attitude of continuous improvement, instead of a stressful perfection vs. failure dichotomy.

Do you ever tell your child you wish s/he was “more like so-and-so?” Do you ever say things like “I wish you could pick up all your toys like your sister does. Why don’t you ever do that?” This is unfortunately very common, but for a child already struggling with perfectionism, it can be very hard on their self-esteem. Suddenly, without prompting, these children compare themselves to others who are far beyond their current skill set in other areas, and wonder what’s wrong. They may ask themselves why they aren’t as far along as their big sister, their idols, or their classmates in guitar, piano, coursework, or otherwise.

Fingers pointing to stressed out child

Is your praise of your child general, rather than specific? Do you say, “Wow, you’re really good at playing piano,” or do you say, “I’m impressed that you have memorized that entire piece in three practice sessions?” If you can give specific, measured praise of single actions, your praise is more effective and better received. However, general praise such as “You’re an awesome guitar player,” only serves to add to a child’s anxiety, because now s/he feels the weight of expectation. If s/he plays a wrong note, suddenly that statement becomes untrue (in the mind of the child, anyhow)!

Speaking of mistakes, they absolutely will happen! What can we do after a musical performance when our child is upset that it didn’t go 100% as planned? If the child has alread expressed worry that the audience will ridicule or laugh at him/her, and that doesn’t happen even when they made an error, it could be worthwhile to point out that the bigger of their fears did not come to pass.

Perfectionist children need regular reminders that no matter what happened at the piano, violin or guitar recital (or in the practice room, for that matter), they are still loved and that their value goes far beyond a single performance, a single skillset, or a single day.

If your child has a tendency to compare him/herself to idols, siblings, or friends, it can be helpful to offer gentle reminders that all progress is made step by step, and not in huge leaps. Encourage them to focus on mastering small chunks, piece by piece, rather than expecting total perfection right out the gate with a new piece of music. When they see their idols play a piece of music, what they’re seeing is the product of many hours of practice and slow progress, one bit at a time.

While working on new skills, children who struggle with perfectionism will often say things like, “Why can’t I get this?” or “Why am I so bad at this?” When children beat themselves up verbally, be careful that you don’t add to it by judging them for that self talk. Try to find a way to encourage them to say nice things to themselves, to treat themselves as they would their friends or teachers. If you can find a way to get them to identify negative self talk when it happens and let it go without allowing it to fester, that’s ideal. Maybe keep a teddy bear by the piano, and whenever they think something bad about themselves, have them stop and hug it. Get creative - there are a ton of ways to turn this tendency around!

Sad girl with head in hands

Lastly, be careful that you haven’t overscheduled your young ones. While children need a wide array of activities to develop skill sets, cognitive abilities, and social skills, too much stimulation can give them a sense of being stretched thin. A good rule of thumb here is to have them involved in one creative and one physical activity outside of school.

How about you? Do you have any fun ideas to add to this mix? We’re all ears!

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