When perfectionism runs in the family
It is quite common, although worrying, to see children or teenagers trapped in a negative self-talk about their achievements ("I am not good enough", "I always fail", "I should have tried more"), their performance ("I am so stupid", "Why others always get better grades than me?"), their popularity ("I have no friends", "I will be forever alone", "I feel like a burden to my friends") or their appearance ("I am so fat", I have ugly face", "No one likes me"). Sooner or later, they start being less sociable, they spend more time in their room, their eating habits change, they are less cheerful and more sad, they get easily irritated, they take everything more personally.
This negative self-talk and its symptoms do not indicate a problem per se. We all have some periods that we are over-criticizing ourselves, but after a while we're back on track. However, in case this tendency for perfectionism is not just a random case, but it happens more often, then we need to take a closer look to the thoughts that are hiding behind this behavior.
When Perfectionism runs in the family
Being harsh on themselves is something that children didn't consciously choose for themselves. It is a behavior caused through many possible ways:
1. As a coping mechanism to perceived threateting situations. For example, if the family went through some challenging periods or events (from conflicts to divorce or loss), it is possible that children learn to control themselves (a.k.a. to be perfect) so that they can protect the system (not be an extra burden, not upset the parents, etc). The same thing apply to external stressful events, like natural disasters, epidemics, war.
2. Having been around perfectionist parents, it's easy for a child to copy that behavior that is unconsciously modelled by their parents. Perfectionism, in that case, is a set of behaviors and thinking patterns which is displayed already by one or both parents, and the children are simply following the pattern.
The Perfectionist Parent
A "must-be-perfect" mother who tries to excel in her multiple roles as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as a businesswoman, etc, and all they hear from her is rules for organizing and "I don't have time for that". A mother who spends her day finishing a complicated project at work or setting up her own business AND at the same time trying to have a dustless and spotless house, AND have home-made food ready, AND prepare the cupcakes for the school party, AND... AND... AND... All these demands that she has put on herself that she need to meet in a perfect way. Unfortunately, when it's time to sit with her children and play ot read a story, her energy is so drained that she finds no joy in it anymore. And she knows it that it is sad how she can't connect with her children at that moment. Perfectionism is highly related to burnout, and a Perfectionistic Mom is at high risk for Parental Burnout.
Or a "must-be-the-best" father who cares for his children's grades or school performance every day because for him that is a proof to society that he is doing a good job as a parent, who works long hours with almost zero work-life balance, who stresses over work, neglects his own self-care and forgets to connect with his family. But also a demaning father who doesn't praise his children for their efforts but only when the results are worth it, or who has given up on them because they didn't manage to reach his high standards, who reminds them often of what he went through and he has still been doing for them, so they should appreciate it by trying their best at school.
When the children are harsh on themselves, their parents have been doing the same for a long time.
How to get rid of perfectionism
No reason to panic. Once more, parents don't need to be perfect. Trial and error is the most humane thing in the world, so by showing to the children that even if you have overseen something, you are there to correct it, you release them of a big burden of this perfectionism obsession. Your aim is to help them be strong and self-confident, so that they can defeat this negative self-talk by themselves, without needing the praise of others.
Let's be realistic
A little bit of reality check can help avoid the big dramas. "Has it happened before?", "Is it something that we can correct?", "How realistic were your expectations?" are some questions that can put the self-talk in the right perspective. Parent's don't need to go from one extreme to the other, that is from over-criticizing to over-praising, since the children can perceive that this overcompensation is a panic reaction and an easy way out. Just say things as they are: "Yes, I can see there is some chance of falling, but I can also see some chance of succeeding, if....".
The Big Picture
Make them see the Big Picture. Praise them when they overcome their self-defeating thoughts by themselves and encourage them to share with you the process of their thinking. Advice them to make a positive thought every time they have a negative one. We cannot rule out the negative thoughts from our head. But we can fight them with positive ones and bring more balance to our life.
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