Monday, October 10, 2011

Parenting My Perfectionist Child

My astrological sign is Virgo.  One of the words I have often heard associated with being a Virgo is "perfectionist."  I always laughed about it because perfection is never something I've strived for.

I was the kid who needed "to apply herself."  I was the kid who had so much potential- if I would just buckle down and give it some effort.  I've never been known as neat and organized. 

In the past decade, especially since becoming a parent, I have found my drive to succeed.  I am inspired to do better for the sake of my kids.  When I was an actress, I took classes to hone my craft.  When I was a social worker, I took classes and attended seminars to expand my knowledge base.  But there isn't much out there to help me be the best parent I can be.  I can read lots of books and online articles and magazines and talk to endless experts but finding a class that teaches me how to be a mom- doesn't really exist in the mainstream.

I'd especially like to sign up for a class that teaches me how to be the best mom to Teagan and Zach.

I've shared about some of the struggles we're facing with Teagan and this anxiety that has hit us with first grade. 

Things are better but this isn't something that has an easy overnight fix.

In terms of school, we've been in ongoing contact with the teacher.  I had a great conversation one afternoon with the guidance counselor.  Teagan was a big help in that she identified a source of some of her anxiety- buying her lunch.  We now pack her lunch each day and she has also joined a lunch friendship club where she and 3 girls in her class eat lunch in the guidance counselor's office once a week and have fun while also learning social skills.  Teagan has no issue with making friends but this is a great way to get her away from the chaos of the cafeteria. 

Jeff and I are cleared with our background check and I had lunch with Teagan this past Thursday.  The cafeteria is a lot less scary than I'd anticipated.  I was expecting it to be pretty crazy but it really wasn't. 

The biggest change that we're working on is changing how we parent our daughter.  Dealing with her anxiety means realizing that she is a perfectionist.  This means she could end up successful or struggling and she's going to take it to an extreme in either direction.

One thing I have to personally do is stop seeing the gray areas as okay.  To me, life is all about the gray areas.  Nothing is black and white.  To my daughter, life has to be as black and white as possible until she is ready to see an acceptable gray area.  For her life so far, I've eagerly employed the "controlled choice" tactic where I give her 2 choices and both are right.  The idea is that she then feels empowered and learns self responsibility.  The problem is that controlled choices means offering 2 right choices.  Most of the time, 2 right choices doesn't fit into her black and white desired world.  Sometimes, she can handle it.  Sometimes, she can't.  Sometimes, 2 right choices is the exact wrong thing for her. 


Praise has to be constructive.  She needs to hear exactly what she's done right- not just that she's done it right.  I've always had this in mind but have to confess that I easily fall into empty praise phrases of simple "good job" and "I'm proud of you" moments.  Because of her perfectionist drive, she's hungry for those praise moments and if she doesn't know exactly how to get them... it's another gray area where she feels unable to fully function.  My focus needs to be on the process- not the product.  "I can tell you worked really hard on this."

The biggest thing that has to change, though, is the behavior that we model for our children.  Almost every article I've read points to looking at your own perfectionist behaviors, your own behavior when you face criticism or disappointment, your own words and actions.  I know I've been stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated, and worn out because of work.  And I'm sure that has come home with me and that she has heard some of my feelings about the situation.  What about hearing Daddy yell at every other driver on the road or at the football players on TV?  What about Mommy being too busy to do fun things?  What about the words we use that accidentally criticize?  What about sarcastic comments that are intended as humor but that actually are more cutting than an adult might realize?

For the past few weeks, I've been carefully auditing myself and seeing where I need to improve and listening to myself.  I've been finding ways to be more fun and that benefits me, Teagan, and the entire family. 

A friend shared an idea that we haven't implemented yet but I'm holding onto it in case we get to a place where we need it.  Her daughter has anxiety and the family doctor suggested making a "worry box" that would sit in the bedroom.  Every night, as part of the bedtime routine, you and your child write down the worries from the day- write it, draw it, whatever.  Put the worries in the box and go to bed.  In the morning, the worries are gone. 

The first thing I'd put in the worry box are my concerns about getting through this anxiety thing with Teagan.


Perfectionism as a personality trait can be a great thing.  This could really drive Teagan towards success.  Perfectionists often end up in important positions, making important decisions, leading teams of people, making big change in the world or in their community.  Which makes this feel even bigger and more important.  If she doesn't learn how to deal with mistakes, criticism, and stress, her perfectionist side will just as easily drive her to give up, to not try, to avoid risk for fear of certain failure. 

It's a delicate balance.  It's another tightrope.  It's a piece to the puzzle that is my daughter.  This insight and learning about perfectionist children has led me to so many "ah ha" moments as I look back on struggles we've had with her.  This explains the bullying, the meltdowns, the fits.  This also points toward how smart she is.  She's reading 2 levels ahead of most of the kids in her class.  She does math in her head while we drive down the street.  She is constantly thinking about things, figuring things out, and making observations that astound me. 

I love this fiercely passionate little girl.  I already know in my heart that she is perfect just the way she is.  The challenge is getting her to realize and learn and believe that being perfect includes making mistakes, facing frustration, and working with criticism.


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1 comment:

Garret of Jim and Garret said...

Boy if I had a worry box it might have to be refrig box sized. ;-)