Relationships: why perfectionist children freeze up
As final exams loom, some children become so fearful they freeze up. They are trapped in the vicious cycle of the three Ps: perfectionism, procrastination and paralysis.
In the past few weeks, I've been busier than ever helping tweens and teens to break this cycle and helping parents realise that their children's procrastination may be due not to laziness but to expectation for everything to be beyond excellent.
The causes of perfectionism are still not clear. Many believe its roots lie in a sense of inferiority, that perfectionists feel they are not good enough and fear being judged and or ridiculed. For others, their sense of self relies heavily on praise and accomplishment.
Because they can't bear the possibility of failing to meet their unrealistic expectations, some children see giving up as a form of control. The idea is "if I don't try, I can't fail". The underlying message is that no one can judge the real me if I pretend I don't care.
If your child seems distant, sad, hostile or clingy when trying something new or not doing well, that might be an indication your child is a perfectionist.
In his 2002 book Moving Past Perfect, US family therapist Thomas Greenspon writes: "People who procrastinate to avoid imperfection are fearful and anxious rather than lacking motivation. Although a parent may interpret a child's procrastination at homework as laziness or even defiance, the perfectionist child is actually hesitating for fear of getting a less than perfect grade."
The three Ps can produce physical symptoms such as stomach aches and anxiety attacks, and, in some cases, suicidal ideas.
Some believe that being a perfectionist will lead to success. However, research shows that many perfectionists are successful not because of their compulsion to be perfect but in spite of it.
Canadian psychologists Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt describe three types of perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionists are individuals who impose strict standards on themselves and avoid failure at all costs; they constantly engage in stringent self-evaluation.
Other-oriented perfectionists are individuals who set unrealistic standards on significant others (that is, partners, children, co-workers).
And socially prescribed perfectionists are individuals who believe that others place unrealistic expectations on their performance and behaviour and believe others constantly evaluate them critically.
Some aspects of perfectionism can be productive. More adaptive types tend to seek solutions to achieve their goals, but those who focus on past mistakes are stuck in the cycle of the three Ps. Most perfectionists are a combination of the three types, with some veering toward one domain more than the others.
As parents, we can help our children develop an understanding of this tendency, increase their self-awareness and acceptance, develop skills to motivate themselves, help them focus on major goals one at a time and focus on the process instead of the result.
To prevent the harmful aspects of perfectionism taking root, we need to establish an emotional bond so our children know they aren't being judged and feel confident they can share their concerns without being ridiculed. Once the bond is formed, try to understand the child's difficulties. Find out what the fear behind the procrastination is and accept that it's a real concern.
As parents, we need to practice more active listening. Talking to a nine-year-old is very different from talking to a 14-year-old. We need to adjust and get in touch with our inner child when talking to children, but when you are talking to a teen, you will need to channel your inner adolescent and remember what it was like at that age.
Once you understand what is behind the behaviour, think of coping strategies that might be useful to your child. For teenagers, you will need to give them a rational explanation of why you think your approach might be appropriate for them.
As year-end exams are on the horizon, help your child focus on his or her efforts, as this is the one thing they have control over, and do not emphasise the expected outcome.
According to my son: "He aims, he shoots … he scores!"
Lora Lee is a registered psychologist and parenting counsellor in private practice as an adjunct to her non-profit work at St John Counselling