Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Carolyn: Last fall you had a column about a high school perfectionist (http://wapo.st/Tg6XNs) who could have been me. Im now in my 30s and long-since healed, thanks to great friends, an amazing therapist and a lot of time. But Im afraid my own daughter will go through what I went through. I can remember feeling guilty about letting people down when I was a toddler (although high school is where the pressure compounded into an eating disorder).
As a parent, how do you see that and offer help preferably long before it reaches such a crisis point? How do I make sure my kids know they are great even when they arent perfect?
A big part of it is to praise them for things they control, like hard work, versus their gifts (looks, talent, intellect). The opening chapter of NurtureShock (Bronson/Merryman) covers this nicely. Kids also need age-appropriate responsibilities so they derive self-worth through contributing, as opposed to winning or losing.
And because perfectionist tendencies are so deeply rooted in feelings and the validity thereof, also try How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (Faber/Mazlish).
Sorry to kick you to longer discourses on the topic, but raising kids to accept their flaws and feel comfortable sharing uncomfortable truths is not a column-size answer. Its a style of communication oriented toward validating feelings without compromising toughness.
Give yourself some credit, too. You know what the pressure to be perfect feels like, and probably also understand what in your childhood environment caused it. Thats a blueprint for what to avoid.
Re: Perfectionist: Now in my 30s, I realize quite a few of my problems with self-esteem and relationships stem from my parents not only being difficult to please, but from their reluctance to let my sister and me express a range of emotions.
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