Your daughter is a perfectionist when it comes to schoolwork. She’s upset with any grade lower than an A. She frequently rips up papers and starts over if she doesn’t like what she’s written. Then she feels even more pressure because she quickly runs out of time.
While it’s true that perfectionists often have sky-high GPAs, their unrealistic expectations create dangerous levels of anxiety and put them at risk for a host of stress-related disorders. They also create havoc for their families who try in vain to soothe their overachievers’ angst.
To help perfectionists relax about their studies, consider these strategies:
▪ Let them know it’s OK to make mistakes. Mistakes are an inherent part of the learning process. Never criticize errors.
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▪ Teach self-soothing tactics. Have students take 10 slow, deep breaths and shake out their hands. Envision a favorite place they like to visit. Imagine a loving relative giving them a hug.
▪ Keep the homework atmosphere light and breezy. Avoid getting sucked into perfectionists’ tension. Instead, stay calm. Speak to them in a relaxed voice. Make little jokes. Keep a stuffed toy next to their desk.
▪ Set a timer. Allow a specific, realistic amount of time to complete an assignment. Then, when the time has elapsed, encourage students to put the assignment away and begin working on another project.
▪ Be a good role model. Notice your own behavior. Do you go ballistic if someone tracks mud on the floor? Do you constantly criticize your kids’ table manners? Then you may be subtly reinforcing perfectionism. While we want youngsters to do their best, it’s equally important that they feel loved and accepted.
▪ Keep education in perspective. Schooling is only one facet of children’s lives. Family, friends, community, good health, physical activity and personal interests are just as valuable and should never be sacrificed for grades.
▪ Encourage perfectionists to take frequent breaks. Divide study sessions into several segments that are interspersed with relaxation and physical activity. Getting up and moving around minimizes the opportunities for perseverating on their studies.
▪ Broaden their horizons. Expose kids to a wide range of activities that don’t revolve around school. It’s especially important to seek out creative and gross motor activities, such as art or 4-H, that engage other parts of their brains.
▪ Reward effort over performance. Perfectionists are already hypersensitive about grades. So innocent comments, such as, “You’re so good in math. I thought you’d ace that test,” can cut deep. Instead, say, “Wow, you’ve worked hard on that book report. Great job.”
▪ Know when to intervene. If perfectionists are getting too frustrated or are having trouble disengaging from their work, gently tell them, “Time to put this away. You’ve studied enough for now.” You’ll temporarily ease anxiety and demonstrate good coping skills.
▪ Share concerns with your children’s teachers. They can watch for signs of perfectionism in the classroom and reinforce your efforts during the school day.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com.