6 Strategies to Help Kids Overcome Perfectionism

May 7th, 2015 by Dionna | 1 Comment
Posted in Children, Consistent and Loving Care, Eclectic Learning, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, My Family, natural parenting, Preschoolers

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My seven-year-old son has a tendency toward perfectionism, as do I. Like many perfectionists, he becomes super frustrated with his own mistakes. Since we homeschool, it has been imperative that I give him some tools to help him through these challenges.

Perfectionists can fall into two main camps – they can overachieve and relish challenges, or they can beat themselves up for any perceived “failure” and become too scared to try new things. I remember feeling both of these extremes – great joy when I’ve tackled something new and difficult, and crushing self-criticism when I’ve failed to master something that I thought should be simple.

Depending on the subject and his mood, my son can go either way. His impatience for his own mistakes makes him feel anxious and upset. On my less-than-patient days, I let his big feelings generate conflict between us. Those days are awful and create stress and anxiety for us both. He feels inadequate when he can’t wrap his head around a problem; I feel inadequate that I can’t help him calm down or facilitate a positive learning environment.

On our bad days, I tell him that he needs to calm down and just do his work. This uncompassionate response rarely inspires calm, confidence, or connection. We’ve spent many a morning with one or both of us in tears, me wondering why I chose this homeschooling journey, him wondering whether traditional “school” looks more attractive. Ultimately, we both want to continue homeschooling, so we’ve tried different ways to connect and find peace when he (or we) are struggling with self-doubt and perfectionism. Here are a few things that have worked for us:

1. Breathe. Meditate.

We’ve been practicing daily meditation (ok, I’ve been doing it daily, he’s doing it sometimes) with Amy of Presence Parenting. Both of us have benefited from slowing down, listening to our bodies, and consciously breathing.

When my son is starting to feel frustrated, I can see that his breathing speeds up, his color rises, he tears up, I’m sure his heart beats faster; in other words, he shows all of the signs of stress. Stopping to breathe, closing his eyes, and focusing inward (instead of on the problem), helps him center himself and move away from those anxious feelings. It also gives him room to listen to calming words.

2. Focus on accomplishments.

Sometimes when my son gets self-critical, he engages in catastrophic thinking. “I’ll never get this right!” “I can never do anything!” or the worst, “I’m so stupid!

Instead of just hushing him (I’ve tried, it doesn’t work), I help him remember some of the things he’s accomplished in such a short time. “Remember when you were frustrated about subtracting in columns? And now you tell me it’s easy! Someday, this won’t feel so difficult either.It is especially helpful to remind him of recently acquired skills, where the previous frustration while learning them is still fresh.

3. Listen calmly; respond with love.

When I catch him early, before he gets really upset, sometimes all it takes is for me to listen to his frustrations and then to respond with some encouraging words. I try to let him know that I’m here for to give him as much love, as much help, as much of whatever he needs as I am able.

I am here for you.” “It’s ok to feel frustrated, we can work through it together.” “I love you, regardless of whether you know what 5 times 5 is.

Patty Wipfler has a technique called StayListening that can help with perfectionists (and all kids) when they feel frustrated or overwhelmed.**1

4. Create an atmosphere where mistakes are welcome.

I once read a suggestion to tell perfectionist kids about eminent people who have failed (here are 50 people you may recognize). That really hit home for my son – he needed to hear that no one is perfect, that mistakes and failure are an integral part of every success.

We talk very intentionally about how mistakes are steps on the path to our goals. I encourage my kids to celebrate risks, embrace challenges, and learn from mistakes. Sometimes all it takes to shake him out of a bad mood is to do a little cheer when he tries, fails, and continues on.

5. Involve other people.

We don’t homeschool in a vacuum, in fact I like to say that we do a lot of “community schooling.” Learning with friends and discussing topics with other teachers helps him in a variety of ways. It gives him more role models (both kids and adults) so that he can see how other people deal with frustration, it gives him different ways of attacking problems (due to the group setting or because others can show him different skills), and it gives him a break from me.

6. Back off.

I’ve saved maybe the most important thing on this list for last. When my son is feeling particularly frustrated, we back off. This may mean that we stop working for the morning, or for the whole day, or it could mean that we put away the topic or skill for months. I’ve had to remind myself many times that my children are the leaders of their own education – I watch and listen for them to show me when they are ready for new things. If I introduce a concept that just isn’t going over well, forcing it will only make life miserable for both of us.

It’s ok to wait. And waiting in itself, setting something aside, is also a skill I want my kids to learn.

More Resources

Here are a few articles that have been helpful for me. I’d love to hear what resources have helped you – please share in the comments.

  1. Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism
  2. Helping Your Child Overcome Perfectionism
  3. 5 Things You Can Do to Encourage a Growth Mindset in Children
  4. Perfectionism in Children


Photo modified (added words) with permission from Bea Serdon via Flickr Creative Commons.

  1. Although I’ve found that when my son gets very emotional, it’s best to just pack up work for awhile and change gears once we’ve worked through his upset.

One Response to:
"6 Strategies to Help Kids Overcome Perfectionism"

  1. Emilia Brasier   ecarleyroe

    We have the same struggle. I actually held off homeschooling for this reason. My son and I are so similar and both such perfectionists that we feel if we can’t get it the first time we have failed, or if we need help we have failed. We have been working on learning progressive relaxation, which helps with deep breathing, and the power of walking away for a bit. Thanks for the ideas.

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