Helping kids overcome perfectionism: 4 effective strategies

Helping kids overcome perfectionism: 4 effective strategies

Your kid tries to write and it doesn’t look ‘right’. So they get upset and you notice they never want to try again. Or you play a board game as a family, you kid loses and gets really, really stressed out and throws the board over. Your kid can’t do his math problem and throws a massive tantrum about it. What do you do? How can we help our little ones out in the middle of or to prevent these situations?

While it is tough to see our children shut down and in pain when things don’t immediately go their way, there are strategies that help. I myself am a recovering perfectionist, so it was with some pain that I saw my daughter begin to show the same traits. But what can we do to change this?

First, in the heat of the moment, when a child is frustrated and showing their big feelings about it, I validate, empathise and listen. At that point that is pretty much all you can do as their logical brain (the pre-frontal cortex) shuts down when cortisol (one of the stress hormones) floods the brain. In other words, big feelings stop people from thinking rationally. They CAN’T hear us at that point. We know, though, that the best way to get over feelings is to go through them. Listen and say stuff like ‘yes it is frustrating when we can’t do things as we want’ or ‘… you are upset it didn’t come out how you wanted. That is natural. I understand’. Just like adults, kids respond to being heard and validated and when we stay calm their mirror neurons will do their job and pick up the cue from us and (with lots of time to get their feelings out) will start to return to centre. It can take a long time to get these feelings out but it is amazing how healing a good cry can be. They can come back renewed, re-energised and ready to tackle the challenge again from another angle.

Meanwhile, there are things we can do to help re-orient kids’ brains so they aren’t so hard on themselves next time. Here are some of the main strategies I have tried that have helped my eldest begin to really change that pattern (and me, too):

  1. Focus on effort not on result. We now make a point to cultivate a culture of learning and growth in our family, including through mistakes, perseverance and bounce-back after screw-ups and we make sure that it is clear that 87- paintingresults/achievement are nice but not what impresses us the most. So, it is a move from outcome- to process-orientation. After a day at school, for example, we ask ‘did you have fun?’ and ‘what did you learn’ (rather than ‘were you good?’ or ‘what grade did you get?’) When we praise at all (we keep praise low as we know it messes with internal motivation), we praise (or notice or comment on) effort in a specific, constructive way that gives kids info on how to do it again, next time (eg ‘I saw you really concentrate and look at the ball for the whole trajectory before you batted it’). We do NOT praise outcome (saying ‘good job’; ‘good girl’; ‘well done on your A’, ‘what a beautiful drawing’, etc. give the message that we value results over effort and that in turn inhibits kids from doing anything that might not immediately and easily yield success – in other words they stop trying things that are hard or things they may fail at, on their first go… which leads to a stagnation in learning, only doing that which comes easy and, in a word, to perfectionism. In order to help a kid become more resilient and focussed on the learning process, praise or notice their strategies and their thinking rather than the result – ‘wow, you put a lot of thought into that drawing’, ‘I saw you try and try and try before you managed to do that. Do you feel proud that you stuck with it?’. ‘You kept at that puzzle for so long, even though it was hard. I know all that effort and learning will help your brain grow’… that kind of thing). Read Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’ if you want to understand this more deeply and check out the video based on her work linked below.
  2. Openly and lightly laugh at your own mistakes (as in ‘no big deal’ and ‘this is how we learn’) and let your child see you doing it. Ham it up and be goofy about it. ‘Ooops, Iook at me I read that word all wrong – hahahah’. [I learnt this tip from a talk I listened to by Lawrence Cohen, author of ‘Playful Parenting’]
  3. Harness the power of stories to illustrate to kids the importance (or at least inevitability) of making mistakes in our journeys toward success. Tell lots of stories about your own learning process and how many mistakes you made along the way. Kids (particularly perfectionists) LOVE this stuff. They lap it up. For a while, my kid couldn’t get enough of stories about potty accidents… then it went on to stories about all kinds of accidents and mishaps, especially by otherwise confident, successful seeming adults. ;) Also, if they are into that kind of thing, read them or tell them stories of famous successful people and point out how many gazzilion times things went wrong before they achieved success (in whatever field from basketball to science, from art to business) and how important it was for those people to ‘keep getting back on the horse’, even after getting something wrong publicly and feeling embarrassed. Emphasise how much they had to practice to become great, too. Real winners are not just people with talent but people who put in the work to keep improving and who develop the resilience to bounce-back when failure inevitably knocks on their door, too. That is where greatness is made.
  4. On a very different note, there is also a flower essence called ‘Yellow Cowslip Orchid‘ from Australian Bush Flower Remedies which specifically helps people overcome perfectionism and being over-critical of themselves. It is amazing. It is what helped my child start to try to write again – before she was too hard on herself as her letters didn’t come out how she wanted them, right off. Flower essences work fast and well – especially on children, in my experience. They are not ‘homeopathic remedies’ but they work a bit like that. They are vibrational essences of flowers – a famous example of one being ‘Rescue Remedy’ but there are so many ones out there. They are just amazing at helping us overcome psychological or emotional blockages. Sound weird? Sure… but they work, what can I say? Try them. :)

All these strategies I have used on my child (and in a modified version on myself) and they really help. Some of it, like changing the way we ‘praise’ our kids, takes time and… well… practice but they all really help make progress and help kids understand that old adage, that the process of ‘genius’ is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

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Here are some other very helpful pieces on this subject:

Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting’s When things don’t go perfectly: How to help kids with perfectionism

For perfectionist parents, Dr. Laura Markham’s My name is Laura and I am a (recovering) perfectionist

A GREAT little video on the power of ‘constructive’ vs ‘destructive’ praise (my words, not hers): Carol Dweck’s research on praise

Postpartum challenges helped me be who I am today

I wrote this about 6 months ago and left it to marinate. I am ready to share, now.

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I got pregnant within months of moving to the US. I had really hardly arrived. And then I had a baby. I had no experience whatsoever with little ones, no old friends to cheer me on and no new friends with babies to advise me (yet). Most of our two families are in Europe. I do have an uncle and aunt here and they are lovely but I do not see them all that often. So, there I was holding a baby, on my own. My partner is super supportive and hands-on but within a couple of weeks of me giving birth (the cesarean way) he had to go back to work. Now, I was home alone with a baby –  a baby who cried a lot. My daughter was ‘colicky’ (or actually I think she was processing emotional trauma – but that is another story). I was home alone with a crying baby, with no clue what to do and little to no day-time support. On top of that I had a very hard time adjusting to my new life. I am not a natural housewife, I have always been more focussed on my ‘intellectual’, creative and social life – at school or work. Suddenly time for any of that was gone – there was only baby.

It was hard. I’d go so far as to say it was one of the most challenging times in my life. I was battling Postpartum Anxiety and felt under siege to my own thoughts. I was lonely and bored while not having a single moment to myself (well, I am sure you all have experienced that last bit, at least).

Today, I was looking back on it all and wondering how different my experience of being a new mum with a tiny baby in arms would have been , had I had her in England or Portugal close to our family and dear friends. Would it have been all bliss and walking on air? Would it at least have been much easier for all of us, for me…? Would it have been ‘better’? And this is where I stopped myself.

I am who I am today in part because of the emotional hardship I faced during those first few months. Hey, I know I had it easy compared to many moms who go through much worse but this time was difficult for me, personally. I can’t tell you exactly what I learnt from going through those particular tests but I do think it has brought me humility and empathy for mothers going through all kinds of struggles. Even if their stories are vastly different, a part of me nods in recognition of how hard it can be. And all the challenges since then, from toddler negativism to pre-schooler limit-testing, anything that comes up to try me in parenting, I still compare it to those early months and most of the time I come up saying, nope this is still easy compared to that.

I often joke that if I had had the perfect homebirth (as I had planned), surrounded by angels and dolphins and unicorns shooting rainbows out of their butts, as they say… I would have been basically unbearable and smug and so gung ho and militant about how if I can do it everyone can do it, I imagine. This slowed me down. I am hoping my challenges made me more ‘real’ in a way, more relatable, more able to listen and really understand what others are going through, without judging or comparing.

So, I know everyone is different and I am not telling others to ‘embrace their stories’ but I notice, looking back now, three and a half years later, that I would not change mine. I am not sure another way would have been better or would have taught me more. It might have been easier but not necessarily better or  it would not necessarily have made me a better person…

Beneath the tantrum is the love – address the feelings and the behaviours start to resolve themselves

Arcadia Child My photos that have a creative c...

Arcadia Child My photos that have a creative commons license and are free for everyone to download, edit, alter and use as long as you give me, “D Sharon Pruitt” credit as the original owner of the photo. Have fun and enjoy! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a child is acting out or having a tantrum, the question for me is ‘can I see past the kid’s behaviour to their Heart’? Even when my child is screaming ‘I hate you and want to hit you’ can I see her suffering?… and beneath that her love?

I reach to connect with her underlying needs and feelings and, in a sense, refuse to believe what she is saying or doing represents her innermost truth. I don’t mean we should ignore the behaviour, mind you. Limits that ensure everyone’s safety and wellbeing, as well as keeping property protected are very important… but I just do not believe that behaviour truly represents ‘who she is’! I keep looking and listening for clues of what is really going on and what is getting in the way of her being her highest, most loving self. What is she feeling, how is she perceiving this situation and how is the reality of this experience for her? Then I act with all that in mind – seeing her as Love, even in the midst of a storm of anger, fear or sadness.

My primary aim, then, is not to stop the ‘wrong behaviour’ but to re-connect, validate the feelings and meet the underlying needs. I do not deploy time-outs, consequences or other punishments to try and get her to do what I want. Instead, I slow down and try to listen and connect first. Amazingly, I find when that truly happens, when she feels deeply heard and understood, when her basic needs (not all her wants!) are met, the behaviour very often  corrects itself, as if by magic. She just needed to feel loved and seen for who she is. And when she feels safe and secure in my love, again, she wants to co-operate, she wants to work with me and find solutions for going forward together, because she too loves me.

This sounds romantic, but actually, it is based in hard science. Neuroscience now firmly tells us that kids cannot physically take in what we are saying to them while they are upset (and if they are throwing a tantrum or acting out, trust me, they are not in their ‘happy place’). When the brain is flooded by stress hormones, the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of reason, logic and empathy, among other faculties) pretty much literally shuts down. Then the part of the brain left in charge is the limbic system. The limbic system processes and records feelings. With the impulse-control center (the pre-frontal cortex) shut down, kids are now pretty much all feelings and impulses.

If (instead of punishing or banishing) we can take a minute, stay with them, listening, modeling calmness and, through our loving presence, validate whatever emotion is coming up for our children (because, let’s face it, all emotions are valid. You are never wrong for feeling what you feel – you just do – it is how you deal with those feelings that counts); if we can keep them and ourselves safe (physically preventing them from hurting anyone) while still baring in mind that they are, at their core, LOVE, they will in time return to centre. When all their emotions are spent, when they have expressed themselves to the full and they feel heard and held by us, in our caring heart – then they return to themselves, their pre-frontal cortex is ON again and now they can truly hear us. Now, that they feel accepted and loved, they can listen to any guidance we have to offer. By this point, I for one, don’t feel like pontificating or lecturing. Usually if the limits are clear (“I will not let you hit”, etc) then there is little need to explain why nor is there need to ask why they did it. If they’ve just been crying for 30 minutes or more, it is clear that they were letting go of a huge backlog of anger, fear or stress that was causing their behaviour to go off-track.

And so, this is it, the magic of positive parenting and why we don’t need to use punishments or rewards. When kids feel loved, connected and understood they most often want to co-operate. So, my main job, at any time, is to do what I can to keep that connection alive in my heart and in my kid’s.

This is work, the true work of parenting, for me. It is not always easy (AT ALL) and I am forever learning more… but this path of conscious, peaceful parenting feels good to me. You?

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If you are interested in the neuroscience there are many good books out there popularising this stuff and making it accessible to everyone. For a really easy to understand explanation of this stuff (the neuroscience of kids emotions and how they learn both to ‘behave’ and to empathise with others) I would recommend The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. which is also chock full of practical tips for applying this knowledge to your parenting.

Other related posts:

  • By Janet Lansbury: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/dont-fight-the-feelings/
  • By Julianne Idleman of Hand in Hand Parenting (founded by Patty Wipfler): http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/parent-education-listening-and-limits/
  • By Genevieve  Simperingham founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute:  http://peacefulparent.com/how-to-set-limits-while-maintaining-the-connection/

    Enjoy exploring those, too. :)

Let’s not punish our kids for our mistakes

Angry? No... tired!

Angry? No… tired! (Photo credit: Sébastien Barillot)

Nika had her second ever ice-cream parlour (soy) ice-cream today. She loved it, of course… Unfortunately the combination of sugar, over-stimulation (mostly from hanging out with a well-meaning and super-fun uncle and auntie) and staying up past her bedtime proved too much for her. After a good, long cry, she fell asleep on my lap in the bathroom – before brushing her teeth!! Bless her…

I really felt for her, though. Those last 30 mins or so before sleep were really tough. She was obviously stressed and wound-up beyond belief.

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Often, I reflect on how many tantrums kids get punished or shamed for that were really caused by us, adults – stuff we did or failed to do to safeguard their basic wellbeing. It is natural and predictable that kids will get stressed and overwhelmed when they are in very noisy, busy environments, when they eat stimulating foods (including sugar and artificial colourings), when they fall out of their routine (or have none to begin with), when they are exposed to lots of new people or transitions or things that stress them personally. If we put them in those situations (which, lets face it, sometimes is inevitable) is it fair if we then turn around and punish them for being over-tired and stressed and expressing that through off-track behaviour, tantrums or crying? Do we adults not get more ratty and impatient and ‘moody’ when we have had a stressful, tiring day?

If we really can’t prevent these over-stimulating factors to crowd their day on occasion, we have at least a duty, imo, to see the tantrum (or the off behaviour) coming and meet it with empathy and compassion rather than surprise, shock and anger.

And, hey, I think limits are important. All feelings are acceptable but not all behaviours are. I think ‘teaching’ kids how to deal with their big emotions in appropriate ways is vital… but we do not do this best through punishment – quite the opposite. Punishing a kid who is already stressed out of their brain only compounds the problem and makes them feel shame for their natural reaction to an unnatural situation they were put in, in this case.

Furthermore, I believe (drawing from research in this area) that kids learn to control their impulses and to express their emotions in socially ‘appropriate’ ways, primarily through observing and living with our example of how we deal with our emotions. the calmer we are, the calmer they can learn to become, essentially (assuming their brains are wired  along ‘neurotypical’ lines). Kids also internalise how we treat them when they have big emotions. If we listen and show compassion for our children when the big waves of feeling are arising, they in time will learn to connect with and express their own feelings, knowing they are valid and accepting them as they come up. They also learn to become naturally caring and empathic towards others, as their first response.

So, yes, supporting kids to behave in socially acceptable ways even when they are angry or tired is very important to me. But the first step to that is empathy, always empathy, not punishment or shame.

Parent peacefully BECAUSE it is hard for you

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E. Frankl

So often I hear how hard it is to break away from the way we were parented to parent differently, more peacefully, more calmly. It takes every ounce of energy we can muster not to react how we were reacted to, not to continue a cycle of parenting violence that did not serve us but that we seem powerless to stop ourselves from repeating.

An icon illustrating a parent and child

An icon illustrating a parent and child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was brought up really quite peacefully. This is often thrown at me like a weakness in a ‘you have it so easy’ kind of a way. They are right. I do have it easier. Our brains are literally molded by the way we were parented. The fact that my parents did not beat or even ‘spank’ me, that they did not habitually yell at me and that their responses were not erratic and unpredictable has given me the ability to respond more thoughtfully and peacefully to those things that trigger me (and yes, I get triggered, too!)  And a life-time of spiritual practice has further helped re-wire my brain so that there is often a tiny bit longer pause between stimulus and response – so that I may choose how I want to respond rather than let my conditioning take-over or find myself reacting in ways I later regret.

Let’s be clear, though, I am NOT perfect. I am very much a work in progress, too. My husband and I have argued far more than I’d like, for example (and we are working on that, too). But generally speaking I am a relatively calm person and I find I often have a surprising amount of patience for my little one and that, in particular, I tend not to take her emotional outbursts personally. I can usually see past the mad to the sad (to quote my friend Tabitha). I can usually look past the behaviour and even the angry words to the underlying feelings and needs that are driving those behaviours. I can, in most cases, with some effort, reach in and find some genuine empathy for what she is going through, even when she is shouting that she hates me or is going to hit me or whatever… And I do think the fact that I was not punished, shamed or hit, yelled at or called names when I was growing up plays a part in making sure those are not my first responses to my child, either.

The other day, while I was speaking to a friend who was, in her words, ‘brought up pretty physically’ and who, like so many others is finding it hard to transition smoothly to positive, gentle parenting, it struck me that this is exactly why it is so important that we parent our children peacefully. We want their first responses to be loving and compassionate. We want their default setting to be to build connection, whenever possible. We want them not to have to struggle to change their own patterns in the future when or if they decide they want to live with more awareness and more peace in their heart – perhaps for the sake of their children.

And I know it is possible. I am surrounded by living examples of people who were brought up with repeated physical punishment and humiliation who are now choosing to bring up their children in more respectful, compassionate ways. I have friends who suffered repeated abuse at the hand of their parents and other family members and are now parenting in such gentle, loving ways they are an inspiration and a joy to behold. Their children, too, most often give out what they have received: respect, co-operation and attentiveness. Change is possible. I know this from my own experience, too. I am forever learning and growing (as I trust everyone here is) and working to overcome my own challenges – some of those deep and complex. And change comes.

Still, the harder you are finding it to move to peaceful, conscious parenting the more obvious it should be to you how very important it is that you do so. If there is in you yearning to parent your child/ren in non-violent ways that build connection, closeness and trust but you feel locked in by the conditioning that comes from how you were parented… then you know how much this stuff sticks. How we respond to our kids – especially in their first three years but throughout their childhood – shapes who they are, how they relate to others and how they react under stress pretty much for the rest of their lives until or unless they, like you, decide to get more conscious and put time and effort into building new habits. Let’s make it easy on our kids to be kind, gentle and empathic to others, in the future – let’s be kind, gentle and empathic toward them, now.

Gentle discipline 101: setting limits

141- talk to me daddyMy husband is a sweetheart. He is also a big kid (in the good sense) and LOVES to play with his daughter. He is great with the imaginative play, with crafts and (surprisingly) involving her in chores… but he is generally not so quick on the discipline front. I am the primary carer and do most of the limit setting, in our family. Recently, he has been wanting to get more involved in that side of parenting, too.

He doesn’t read much about parenting but he agrees positive, gentle discipline is the way to go not only because it feels right to us but because it works – and he sees our daughter flourishing under this approach. Today, I watched him apply a limit and thought it was ‘text book’ (in a Connection Parenting book, I assume), so I thought I would share, as it is such a clear example:

  • He set the limit (no riding the scooter indoors). He said it gently and with compassion but also firmly.
  • He held the limit (he literally held the scooter and said ‘I won’t let you ride in the living room’). His body language was clear, too. This was not going to happen (riding the scooter indoors) – but he was down at her level, speaking in a even tone and ready to listen as well as ‘tell’.
  • He empathised with Nika. He listened to and validated all her feelings for as long as she needed to express them – all her anger and sadness about this limit and not being allowed to do the thing she was set on doing. Mostly she expressed her feelings through crying. (He said things like: ‘I can see you really wanted to scooter in here. It looks so much fun, right? But it is not safe. You could slip or it could scratch our new wood floor or you could run over one of your toys… You can ride outside whenever you want. Just ask and you can go scooter on the patio’. He continued in that vein – although overall he did A LOT more listening than talking)…He also made room for negotiation and compromise. He  answered all her questions and in the end we  agreed on a compromise, she can ride sitting down (her suggestion) very slowly and carefully, she will help cleaning up the floor before riding, if there is ‘debris on the floor’ but she cannot whiz around the room. Scootering is now established as an outdoor activity in our family.

That for me is the simple formula for setting loving limits:

  1. set the limit
  2. hold the limit, firmly but gently
  3. listen and empathise to everything that comes up for the child in reaction to the limit

And you can use this formula for any limit you need to set from ‘no hitting or biting’ to ‘yes, mom really needs to go out now’ and if possible you stay with them for as long as they need to ‘tell’ you (usually in tears) how much that sucks for them or how angry or sad they are. And personally I find, whenever this process is complete, we all actually feel closer to each other and ready to again ‘shoal’, co-operate and move together as a family. I can feel it in me and see it in my daughter’s behaviour, as she invariably becomes freer, more confident and engaged.

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I share this knowing that time-outs are the choice of favour for many nowadays. And I understand that in a lot of ways time-outs are easier and have more immediately visible ‘effects’ however I do not think they are the best choice in the long run. I hope you will consider ‘loving limits’ as one of the (many) effective alternatives to time-out. And for anyone wondering, here are some articles that really go into the down-sides to time-outs:

- http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/supernanny.htm
- http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/timeouts
- http://www.parenting-with-love.com/do-time-outs-make-children-behave-better/
- http://genevievesimperingham.com/what-does-a-child-learn-when-theyre-put-in-time-out/

How do we get kids to WANT to eat healthily?

drink cold water

drink cold water (Photo credit: Jay Hsu 藍川芥)

New research indicates that kids who understand more about food, the nutrients it contains and and what they do in our body are more likely to want to eat their greens.

This totally jibes with my experience – although my example is with drinks rather than food. At around 2 my kid discovered juice and (though we dilluted it and only gave her about 1/4 juice or less) it got so that she wouldn’t drink water on its own. I was really not happy about this but there were extenuating circumstances: a) I could see that she drank much more fluid when there was even just a splash of (organic, 100%) fruit juice in it – and I know the importance of hydration to the body; and b) I often used the taste of the juice to disguise her probiotics, fish oils and other supplements – mostly aimed at helping ease her eczema. So the juice was also helping in a way. But, at the same time, I am aware of the effect of even fruit sugars on blood sugar and teeth.

So, a few months back, we started talking to her much more about the importance and advantage of drinking plain water. I think the tooth-health argument really got through to her. We never made it scary or threat based. We didn’t want to scare her into drinking more water, we just wanted her to make an informed decision based on more than just taste. And, now, at 3.5 she has decided that most days she’ll drink only water and occasionally drink juice… and actually she hasn’t asked for juice since she made this new resolution, a couple of weeks back (though I know this can still change at any moment lol). Still, I love this. I am very proud of it, actually (hey, you got celebrate the ‘wins’, right?)

And I get that much of this is because at 2 or 2.5 when she started wanting only juice she didn’t have the cognitive whereabouts to grasp the finer aspects of the nutritional choices she was (unconsciously) making – she was guided by her taste buds alone. And now at 3.5 she can get this stuff, make connections… but I am so proud that she did get it and made the choice by herself without any real pressure from us. Okay we told her water was better and explained why but we kept cheerfully giving her the juice until she chose the water, for herself. We gave her freedom and time so she could decide for herself.

Would this exact approach work with all kids, in the same time-span? Possibly not – but I bet it would work with most, sooner or later. Given good information, (most) kids make good choices, in my experience.  This new research from Stamford seems to indicate my gut feeling might just be right, if you give kids credit for the ability to understand and care about their health, they will rise to it.

Here is the piece on the Stamford research on the effects of teaching pre-schoolers more about nutrition. Enjoy!