When Doing Their Best Gets in Your Child’s Way

Parents know how hard it is to get kids to do their homework. We struggle, giving them a w-i-d-e berth for autonomy, while resisting the urge to make them just sit down and get it done. (As if someone could make a kid do anything they don’t want to do!) It’s a balancing act many of us struggle with and often feel we fail at.

One would think having a perfectionist child would make this easier, but sometimes it doesn’t. Perfectionist children can struggle in school as much as typical kids and can have an added level of self-criticism that makes their workload feel heavier due to their intense fear of making mistakes. At times, students’ unrealistic expectations of perfection can trap them in crippling anxiety, according to Dr. Lindsey Bergman.

“Do your best!” is a common parental refrain spouted to our kids.  But we may be sending our already stressed out and perfectionist kids a mixed message. There’s a subtle but imperative difference between the concepts of “doing your best” and “being your best.” Doing one’s best is actually very hard to measure and it’s not a message that really translates to other areas of life.  When making dinner, no one typically yells out from the family room:  “Make your best meal!”

Our request “do your best” may seem to them that if they don’t get straight A’s they aren’t doing enough. Kids who are already self-critical may feel as though grades are a direct reflection of their worth and that their best simply is not good enough.

Dr. Bergman explains anxiety due to perfectionism can present many different ways. For example, perfectionists may procrastinate doing homework out of fear of a getting a bad grade. If you notice your child avoiding work but not enjoying the down time, they may be actually hiding from the work as opposed to just slacking off. Dr. Bergman even mentions situations where students complete their homework but don’t turn it in due to fear of it not being good enough.

If we think there’s a chance our children may be struggling, as parents we must take an honest look at where their anxiety is actually coming from. Their issues can feel as intense to them as our adult ones do to us. Before you have a conversation with your child check in with yourself.  Ask yourself if it’s possible you may be unwittingly adding to their stress.  Is it okay with you that they didn’t get an A? If not, ask yourself why?  Students already feel a huge amount of societal pressure to get A’s. If you can recognize that you may be adding to their stress, your conversation might be very different than you expect.