Q. I have a six-year-old son who is a real perfectionist. He can get really angry and upset if events don’t pan out 100% as he had envisioned. For example, he might be drawing a picture and then get really mad if he makes a mistake and then can scrunch up the paper and throw it away. He can shout and scream for ages. It can also happen with other people, like when he is playing a game with a friend and he does not do it “perfectly” and this can lead to a falling out. I try to tell him it is okay, but he remains angry and upset for ages. What can we do?
A. Lots of young children have a perfectionist trait to their personality, whereby they have high expectations about certain events and experience intense frustration when things don’t turn out the way they want. These children can be very hard on themselves (as well as hard on others) as they expect to do things perfectly.
Managing perfectionism can be hard work as a parent as it can underlie tantrums and outbursts and can make it hard for children to make friends or get on with other children.
However, it is also important to acknowledge that perfectionist personality traits aren’t all bad and can have some benefits for children as they grow up such as giving them an inner motivation to do things correctly, a great ability to attend to detail in certain areas and a willingness to work hard at things. Nevertheless, in extreme forms perfectionism can make children unhappy and take the fun out of simple activities.
As a parent the goal is to “soften” or provide balance to the extremes of these traits and over time help your children tolerate a range of outcomes and emotions and to be less hard on themselves and others.
In helping your son, the first thing to do is to try and be patient. It is easy to get frustrated with his frustration or to dismiss his feelings when he is getting upset at not being able to do something. However, doing this you might be expecting too much and indeed showing him a perfectionist trait in your own personality! As a result, it can really help if you can take a pause and make sure to first acknowledge how he is thinking and feeling as well as gently balancing this.
For example, if he has become frustrated when making a mistake in his drawing you can acknowledge “I know you wanted to get it all done quickly . . . but you did the first bit really well and you tried really hard.”
Parents can also inadvertently reinforce perfectionism by over praising a child when they are successful or when they finish something. It is far more important to notice and praise when your child makes a great effort, or does his best or persists even though it is hard, and especially if he shows good cheer in the face of setbacks. Rather than simply focusing on when things are done “correctly” or the “right way”, you want to encourage him doing it his own way or help him realise that there are often many ways to complete things.
When he begins to go down the route of a tantrum as a result of his frustration, a range of strategies might be helpful. Sometimes distraction can work, simply moving on from the original frustrating task and doing something else, sometimes soothing or coaching him might help, saying you understand in a sympathetic voice and supporting him having another go.
If you feel his behaviour is escalating as a result of his frustration, you should also be prepared to use some discipline strategies such as reminding him to be polite even though he is upset – “I know you are upset at the game, but you must speak politely to mummy.”
Occasionally, you might have to use a consequence to help him behave such as “if you don’t calm down now, you will have to go outside for a minute”. The key message you want to get across to him is that while you understand his feelings of frustration, he has to learn to express them in a more positive way.
There are also lots of good child-centred books that tell the story of children learning to manage feelings of frustration and to persist in the face of disappointment, overcoming obstacles and dealing with frustration. Some children’s TV programmes communicate the message of – keep trying and don’t give up – in song and story. Reading these books and watching some of these programmes with him can help him feel understood and identify strategies for dealing with his frustration.
Sometimes being a perfectionist is aggravated by being exposed to many activities that are hard for you or that require a lot of learning. In these cases it can help to make sure your child regularly completes activities which allow him to use his individual talents, when he feels particularly skilled and masterful.
In addition, it is important to counterbalance the need to be “perfect” by making sure there are plenty of other times during the day when your son can just enjoy doing things where there are no specific goals or rules. This can be as simple as having a daily messy play time with water or paints or physical exercise and wrestling where the emphasis is simply on having fun with people rather than winning the game or doing the job correctly. Setting up daily play times between you and your son, when you simply enjoy each other’s company, can really help.
Perfectionism is a common personality trait for many pre-school and young children, which tends to fade and soften as they grow older, though it can continue to persist into adulthood. Your role is to patiently support your son over time as he learns to accept disappointments and to be more compassionate on himself and others, while also encouraging him to retain the admirable qualities of wanting to do things well and to the best of one’s ability.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, May 2010. John writes in the Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.