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

Understanding babies’ Buddha nature as a key to conscious parenting

Image by Jean-François Chénier via Flickr

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Babies are little Buddhas. This is my thesis, based on observing my (now two year-old) little girl and many of her friends. Let’s examine the evidence:

  1. Toddlers live in the Now. When they say they want something they mean right now, not in a bit, not tomorrow. They are talking from their feelings in the moment. Conversely, when they say they don’t want something, often (especially when it is something they otherwise love) they mean ‘not right now – ask me again in two minutes!’

  2. Kids this age are present, Here. They can, increasingly hold little conversations including about things that happened in the past and they can remember people and places that are out of sight; their sense of imagination, too, is a wonder and still, somehow they bring it all with them into the Present. They are incredibly alert to what is happening here and they are mesmerised by the unfolding of life before them: an ant on the side-walk, a cloud in the sky, a cigarette butt in a bin – it is all fascinating and so real and earthy.

  3. They are very much in the body. Though their minds are developing at a galloping pace, they are not ‘mini-adults’. The use of complex (or even simple) logic is not their prefered modus operandi for getting to know the world – even if they stand still and appear to listen and take-in a whole long lecture. Yes, they can understand a lot but learning through the body, through movement and play is what they are primed for and is still the most appropriate for this age group, in my view. Indeed, Rudolf Steiner, renowned educator, writer and philosopher, maintained that until around the age of seven, children mostly learn through imitation of the actions and rhythms they see around them. It is how they learn best and it keeps them from becoming too grown up, too intellectual and rational, too soon. Most of us want to nurture rounded individuals, people who can think, yes, but who can also imagine, feel, do… this is the age to practice and focus on creativity, imagination and play. Now is the best window of opportunity to foster great vision, creativity and even (arguably) the start of emotional and social intelligence. Yes, children are in the body and we gain a lot by remembering this and communicating with them with this in mind.

  4. Young children are in tune with their emotions and express them fully. I used to believe that enlightened people did not feel emotions. That they had somehow risen above them and lived with a permanent smile on their face, in an unbroken state of bliss. I have now had the good fortune of meeting several living enlightened masters (and even briefly living close to one) and I observe that they do, very much, have feelings. What is ‘different’ (if anything at all) is that they don’t judge their feelings or stop themselves from expressing them, they don’t get stuck in them, or act upon them, blindly, either. The feeling comes like a wave, it does its crazy-wavey thing and then it passes. The sea carries on, in deep peace, despite the waves. It does not say ‘that wave is too big, too frothy, too violent’… The Self (or deep sea) remains still, unaffected by the waves, no matter how dramatic it got on the surface. So it is with the self-realised individual (one who knows their true Self), feelings – like thoughts – arise and pass, leaving little mark on the person (like writing on water). Most are expressed in the moment, without judgement. If the feeling carries a call to action one which the Heart supports, the action is taken, without drama. The inner-guru or true Self witnesses it all, almost from afar, untouched. I am not saying young toddlers are actually ‘enlightend’ in the sense of realising the true nature of their Selves, mind you… but much of their behaviour points to a simpler, more natural way of being, much less tainted by thought, ego and judgement than most adults. Maybe we have something to learn from kids who are able to say ‘I hate you!’ in one second and come hug you shortly after, when that momentary (and very truthful) feeling has been completely expressed and released. Adults often lose touch with their feelings completely. They either repress them so deeply they forget they have any, and live a kind of cold, sterile, intellectual existence where they neither allow themselves to feel great fear or anger nor to enjoy deep happiness or love… or they act from a kind of reservoir of stored feelings almost continuously, out of compulsion, so that their feelings get the better of them and they end up doing all kinds of things they regret (where as the repressed ones probably regret more what they haven’t done). So, many of us carry around all these feelings that are either not fully expressed or not fully released (meaning that even if we expressed them – often loudly – we have still not ‘let them go’, we have not forgiven, learnt and moved on, leaving the feelings behind). It takes courage to express our feelings. It also takes great courage to forgive and move away from anger or other familiar, ‘safe’ feelings. So, in the end most of us are guided by poorly processed emotions and (unconscious) fears, resentments, guilt, etc. But kids don’t have this baggage, yet – which means we have an opportunity to help them not accumulate any!

  5. Children are love. In fact, I would argue we all are. At our root, mystics have long said (and quantum physics now confirms), we are pure energy. We are being of light and love. We may deviate. We may forget our light or have it, temporariy, obscured but we feel best, achieve the most, influence and touch the most lives when we live from our highest state, our highest place of love. Children, too, may act naughtily… but if we see into their core and remember to speak to the highest in them, they will respond (eventually).

  6. Young children live in a non-attached state, by and large. Okay, this could get confusing. I am not talking here of the child forming a ‘secure attachment’ to their primary carer(s) which psychologists like Bowlby have shown are so important for the health and mental wellbeing of all children (and later adults), of  this bond us ‘Attachment Parents’ work so hard to create and maintain with our kids. Here, I am using the term attachment in the Buddhist sense of the word. [I should share that I am not a Buddhist… but the vocab of Buddhism is very common in our society and many if not all of you will know what I mean when I use these words.] So, in this case I am saying that little children are, by and large, free from attachment to outcome. They do what they do not because they are trying to achieve something by this but because it is what they want to do, right now, it feels good to them – and then they watch and see what happens. Very Zen, actually.

  7. Toddlers see what is. This is the pinacle of many spiritual paths. The aim of most Eastern and modern New Age spiritual paths is to simply ‘see what is’ clearly, in the now, without judgement or condemnation, without hiding or fighting what is arising in our outer reality or in our inner experience. To be at peace with what is, to accept it efforlessly and to let it go when it passes; to act when the urge to act presents itself without attachment to outcome or second-guessing the deed is to flow naturally with life, open to what God gives you (to mix my religions a tad!). And I see whisps of this approach to life in toddlers. If a dog has three legs it has three legs. If we are poor and live in a slum, it is just the way things are, it does not get judged, questioned or measured against others, it just is what it is (at this age, at least).


Yes, to me the evidence is clear, toddlers are naturally more in tune with their ‘Buddha nature’ (contained in each living human being) than the rest of us are.

Now, how does this knowledge help us as parents? Let us consider each of these points again from the perspective of learning how best to respond to their needs, feelings and behaviours, as part of our investment  in learning the art of effective ‘gentle discipline’:

  1. Toddlers live in the Now: we should bare this in mind when talking to them. The example I gave above is classic, if they say they want something, like a snack, remember they mean now and (even if you cannot provide the exact one they requested) see if you can meet the underlying need (in this case, hunger) now rather than asking them to hold on until, say, you have been to the supermarket. They are not developed enough to be able to ‘delay gratification’ yet, on the one hand and, on the other hand, if they are upset they are no longer cognitively able to understand logical explanations of why they should hang on a little bit longer – when their feelings take over command of their brain they hoist out the logical brain. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t introduce the idea of ‘waiting’ and talk to them about how much better a snack they could have at the supermarket, or whatever… I just wouldn’t expect a very high return on that, at this age. Go easy on them. Conversely, if you ask a two-year old if they want to do something and they say ‘no’… wait a few minutes (until they have finished what they were so intently focussed on) and ask again. You might find that that ‘no’ actually meant ‘not now!’ In fact, make it a practice to mentally always add the word ‘now’ on the end of each of their sentences: ‘I hate you’ (right, now); ‘I want an apple’ (right now); ‘I need a hug’ (right now)!

  2. Kids this age are present, Here: step into the moment with them. One of the best tools in your gentle/positive parenting kit is ‘play time’ and one of the most important attitudes is to think of ‘discipline’ as something that happens by prevention or, as we say, ‘through connection’. If you can keep the connection between you and your child(ren) strong, real, light and fun you will really help prevent many issues from even arising. Whenever they can feel the love (inside them) they are also more likely to want to listen and co-operate with you. In fact, that stands to reason, we are all more likely to co-operate when we feel in tune with someone (rather than when we are at loggerheads and just want to resist and drag our feet), right? Kids are no different… So, how do we create connection? There are many ways and people have literally written books about this but the first step is always to become present and see what is here, now. Slow down. We connect by seeing our children, by really getting down to their level and seeing them, engaging in affectionate eye-contact and/or just watching them and noticing what brings them joy, what is holding their attention in that moment. And then, when invited, step into their world and speak their language: play. Plus, come back into the present and synch into where we are right now, we’ll be able to meet our children in this space, giving ourselves an extra beat, an extra breath to find the peace in which a creative, joyful solution can emerge for us, if one is needed. Let this be the basis of your discipline approach: connection and play. And let the ‘corrections’ be gentle, effective, playful… and as seldom as possible while maintaining a respectful, lighthearted, connected relationship.

  3. They are very much in the body: As I mentioned, Steiner holds that children are in the realm of doing and experiencing until they reach age seven. This is very important in terms of discipline (from the Greek ‘to teach’) because it means that while kids can respond to verbal commands, they do better and are much more able to respond to suggestions that are physical in nature. What I mean by this is that they are more likely to clean up a room if they see you cleaning up and they join in – by immitation. Or, if instead of screaming from across the room to not play with a particular object, parents get up and move to the child and physically (gently and with consent or at least fair warning) remove the object from the child – rather than expecting them to understand and obey a verbal command at this age and then punishing them if they do not comply. I am not saying they can’t understand. I am just saying the way their brain is wired at this age, they do much better with being shown by example (on their own or somebody else’s body) than being told. The same goes if they are, for example, hitting other children – stop them physically from doing it (don’t just tell them it is wrong and get upset if they don’t immediately stop and listen to you – they are in the middle of doing and it takes some doing on your part to change that). Modelling also works well on another front: if you want them to be calm, emotionally still and centered, the best way to begin to bring about this change is for you to slow down, get down to their level, look into their eyes and engage with them, even as you calm and center yourself. Children are sponges absorbing the energies, moods and tensions of the environment around them, if you want a calm child make sure their environment is simple and calming in its nature (turn off the stereo or TV or put on calming music) and see if you can surround them with people who are serene – at least in that moment, in which you need to help them re- find their center.

  4. Young children are in tune with their emotions: given an opportunity they will express and discard them, right there and then, in the moment and return to balance. They are not, like many adults, ruled by suppressed emotions they don’t even realise are there or that they dare not express… most kids before the age of three are still very open and expressive of their feelings. Our job, again, is just to get out of the way of them doing what comes naturally to them and ex-pressing their feelings as and when they arise. The worse we can do as parents, in my opinion, is to start to give them the message that some feelings are better than others or that some emotions are plain wrong – like anger/raging for girls or sadness/crying for boys. Then the (life-long) work of suppression begins! We inadvertently give them these messages when we try and distract them from or stop the natural flow of emotional expression. Some parents do this very openly using shame or blame (“stop that crying”; “get over it”; “suck it up”; “control yourself”; etc). Others do it subtly, even lovingly, filled with good intentions (“oh, you are sad, here have a cracker” or “there, there, don’t cry”. I have written about this recently and I am still very much a beginner at this ’emotional freedom’ approach for kids but I got to tell you it makes sense to me. Our job is to enable our children to continue to sense, accept and release their feelings, as easily as they do now. We can give them the vocabulary to openly discuss with others what is going on; we can provide a safe environment for them to ‘feel the feelings out’ and we can continue to model and message the fact that all feelings are ‘normal’, acceptable, natural – and that we are responsible for how we act upon these feelings… but what we don’t need to do is teach them how to feel or express themselves. There may be times when we help them channel those feelings more appropriately (“show me how mad you are by hitting this drum” or “show me how you felt when your sister said that, in a drawing”) but otherwise, our job is to step out of the way and let them do what they do so well: express themselves till their heart’s content.

  5. Children are love. In some ways, this is the most important of all of these points: children are love. If you started your journey to conscious, gentle parenting with only one ‘new’ belief and this was the one, I believe you would not go far wrong. For many it is not enough to know that children are love, they want to know how to put it into practice and so positive discipline books are written which get into they ‘how to’s… but if you start only with this, in your Heart to hold always that ALL children are love; if you respect them as a whole individual, an equal (if smaller) human being, with rights; if you can see past the behaviours, the words, the feelings and needs of the little one – important as those all are – and you can see the eternal in them, you will automatically raise your own energy in remembering too, who you are. And acting from that space, you will be talking Heart to Heart, pure consciousness to pure consciousness, unfettered (for a moment at least) by the bodies and the human entanglements you may have gotten into. Let the light in you recognise and speak to the light in them.

  6. Young children live in a non-attached state. They do not always understand consequences. They are experimenting to see ‘what happens when I do this?!’ Sure kids can be filled with guile and ‘intention’ and still so much of what they do is guided by this wanting (in the Now) to experiment with what is. They throw to find out what sound a thing makes, which way it will fall, how somebody will react if they are hit, how much they can get away with… They don’t do it ‘to annoy you’, as such, the intention is not hurt and they don’t yet have the capacity for empathy or to think in the third person (knowing that person feels something different from what I do) – until at least three. Sure, you can and should talk to them about all these themes but it is not helpful to expect them to get stuff they are just not equipped to fully understand, yet. So, don’t blame them or assign negative intent if they are just experimenting with gravity, for example. Try and put yourself in their shoes and think what they are trying to learn when they do this and see if you can re-direct them to more appropriate ways of doing that – ‘you can throw this soft ball, instead’ or ‘you can bang and make all the noise you want with this spoon on this pan’ or even’ you can hit my hand as hard as you like but you may not hit my head’ – hahah. Stay loose, have fun, find alternatives but try not to judge or to take it personally. At this age (pre-three) it really isn’t.

  7. Toddlers see what is. Kids are able to approach new situations without judgement, truly open-minded because these situations are geneuinely new to them and they have not yet accumulated the load of positive and negative associations which most of us carry. In the same way that they can be awe struck by a line of ants filing past a log they can be intrigued by a pile of rubbish or a dead seagull. It is all neutral to them. Stepping away from a ‘praise culture’ allows us to not impose our value judgements on our kids. We learn to refrain from saying ‘that is a good drawing’ or ‘you look pretty, today’ and instead asking kids what they think of their drawing or of how they look. This builds self-reference and trust in their own judgements… but I don’t think it is only in praising that we are heaping our views and judgements of the world on our children. All the time whether it is the taste of spinach or the view from a helicopter we can refrain from telling our kids how they should feel about something. ‘Yummy spinach!’ will just sound hollow to them if they are thinking it stinks… and thus erode some of their trust in your over-enthusiastic descriptions of the food on their plate. Why not take a moment to find out, instead, what they actually feel about this new food? If they don’t like it, you telling them how great it is when that is clearly dissonant to their own experience will not help them like it. Sure, watch yourself, don’t project negativity about stuff either, they may become reluctant to try something daddy doesn’t like… but no need to go too far the other way and try and brain-wash them into liking it, either. It won’t work. So, here, I see our job not to teach them what to like or not like, but instead to guide them to learn to identify and express their own feelings about what they encounter in the world. We want them to be clear about their own preferences and aversions (rather than being led by others or to need others’ approval). We want to help them to enter each situation anew, afresh, much as they do now – and be able to turn inwards for their own instant, spontaneous assessment of what is and what action if any needs to be taken. They should not be (consciously or unconsciously) worried about what we or others think of them or their actions. They should also, ideally, not be encumbered by past thoughts and judgements about similar people, objects or situations. We want them, I believe, to have awareness of the judgements that come up, which they have either inherited from others or remembered from isolated incidents are are now generalising. We want them to see these and know they are not truth, they are ‘prejudice’ – and to know to look beyond these, to what is there in front of them, now.  Yes, children see what is and that is a blessing. The trick, the question is whether we can help them remain as non-judgemental as possible as they grow. If we can prevent ourselves from passing down all our judgements (not just the obvious ones like around race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc) but many of the other judgements little and small so that they can make up their own mind… Toddlers see what is, without judgement. We can learn from them.

Toddlers are not actually self-realised, I get that. It is not my observation that my little one knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that she is pure spirit (in physical form), that she is not the body, she is not the personality or the mind, she is not the feelings or the memories, not even her name or the labels others or she herself puts on her. She does not abide in the unshaken realisation of who she is. She is on the human plane on a ‘journey’ to discover who she really is, like the rest of us… but who knows if supporting kids to hold onto some of the above characteristics will help remind them of their true Buddha nature?

In practical terms, you can focus on the negatives and tell me how ‘terrible’ toddlers can be or you can slow down, tune in and find all the ways in which they are so in synch with life, feelings and the ‘here and now’ that perhaps it is us who need to learn (be ‘disciplined’?) by them.