Pressure to be perfect

Not coping with failure ...
Not coping with failure ... Photo: Getty Images

From the moment children demonstrate little streaks of independence parents are encouraged to praise them with words and actions. Toilet training? Here’s a sticker chart. Managing the school drop off without tears? Here’s a special treat at the end of the week. Whilst we want our children to move ahead and achieve the milestones required of them, for some children this emphasis on achievement can translate to an unbalanced focus and pursuit of perfection.

The first term of a new school year is littered with new friendships, settling into the ways of a different teacher and a chance to really get their (and your) head around the expectations of the education year. Now that school has returned for another term those behaviors of perfectionism might begin to emerge. So what can parents and teachers do to send the message that making mistakes is all part of the learning journey?

A mum, a psychologist and an education consultant share their thoughts.

Annabel’s son is the oldest of four. She noticed when he was only a toddler that, like many his age, he responded well to praise. Having to juggle the needs of her other children she noticed that her son placed an emphasis on affirmations and that when others ‘piled on the praise’ he responded well. Now in the middle of his primary school years she notices that he struggles, the need to get things right makes him unwilling to take risks. ‘Often at home we're reminding him "You're not the parent" and at school this year he is being told "You're not the teacher." He likes to help and usually his intentions are well meaning’ explains Annabel. ‘When he was younger his teachers would call him their special helper, and comment on how helpful he is (but) this in itself has not been helpful because he sees it as something he needs to do at school to receive affirmation from others. There is now a link between the need for his work to be perfect and the inability to make mistakes in public’. So what are the common traits of children - like Annabel’s son – who are high achievers and who feel anxious when they’re not?

The reluctance to try new things for fear of being unable to "get it right" first time is a common trait amongst perfectionist children explains Sydney based psychologist Sandra Bowden. She goes on to explain that these types of children can quickly become frustrated or anxious when given challenging or unfamiliar tasks and some become intensely angry and give up, their behaviour can also be categorized by frequently seeking reassurance from their teacher and doubting their own ability even though they are academically gifted. Sandra, the co-author of I just want to be me, a book that helps children build resilience, suggests a few ways to challenge and support those who feel the need to get it right. ‘Model reasoned behaviour’ she suggests ‘so that when making their own mistakes parents avoid harsh self-critical statements that reinforce mistakes as bad, remind kids that they have already had lots of practice in making mistakes - as they learned to walk, talk, dress themselves, learn to write – reinforcing that when something is worth learning, it's worth the mistakes’ explains Sandra. Taking the pressure out of situations can also help lighten the mood ‘take a "fun" approach to mistakes - deliberately colour something in the "wrong" colours’ just to show your kids that there are benefits to doing things in an imperfect way.

It is possible for parents to work on these issues at home and feel confident that they are being addressed at school.  Denyse Whelan, education consultant and retired primary school principal emphasises that schools expect that ‘families are part of the team of educators wanting the best for the children’ and so it’s necessary for parents to engage with their child’s teacher to build a bridge between home and school so that they can show their child there is a team behind them. Using similar strategies to challenge and minimize the chance for anxiety around performance allows for children to hear the same messages between the two places they spend the most time. Being perfect is hard to sustain, giving them a chance to behave otherwise might lessen the burden.

How do you manage the perfectionist streak in your primary school aged children?