Four steps for how to help with homeschooling a perfectionist child (or with any situation where a child struggles with perfectionism).
As we sat on opposite sides of the table, I was showing my daughter how to figure out place value when a 0 is involved. I gave her the opportunity to try it by herself as I looked out the window at the wind blowing through the trees. I started daydreaming, getting lost in my thoughts. The sound of crying pulled me back to the room. When I turned my head to look at her, she was sobbing with her head down. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Through gasps, she said, “I don’t want to get it wrong, I don’t want to miss one.” I just stared at her, not knowing what to do. We had been down this road before. In fact, the road was starting to get worn down from all the trekking on it. Worse, we were going in circles.
This scenario seemed to become the norm during pretty much all of the subjects. My daughter had a lot of anxiety about getting even one answer wrong…on anything, ever. I had been racking my brain trying to figure out how I could help. This included assessing my own expectations (maybe I’m subconsciously putting pressure on her to get everything right?), assessing my response to her getting one wrong (am I getting upset when she gets one wrong?) and assessing the general atmosphere of our homeschool (is it upbeat, positive and encouraging?).
Truth be told, I had been doing a pretty sub-par job in all those areas, but I had been praying through that and had been learning to change. I struggle with perfectionism myself so homeschooling a perfectionist is going to require work on both ends. I once was given some advice that if you see your child showing some form of behavior that is troubling, to look at yourself first and see if you are modeling that. If so, change, and then your child may just follow suit. That advice has been helpful to me so many times. The problem with this situation, though, was that I had been changing and growing in all three of those areas, but still we found ourselves in the same place.
The answer for how to handle this situation seemed to be behind a door that I didn’t have the key to. I kept banging on it, but just didn’t have the strength to knock the thing down. So I did what any mom would do. I gave up. Completely worn out, I sat down with my back against the door and cried. A figurative door, yes, but let’s not pretend we haven’t all sat behind a bathroom door with our back against it, crying. So there I was against my figurative door and God’s grace swooped down and handed me the key. So for any moms out there that are struggling with this same situation, I hope I can help a bit with the grace God has given me.
An Unexpected Answer
I recently went to a meeting with a group of moms to listen to a speaker. The speaker was a child’s counselor talking about childhood anxiety. I didn’t know that information when I arrived, but let me assure you, I had this situation in my mind as soon as I learned what the topic was going to be. Near the end, she asked for questions and I was one of the first to ask mine. I told her the situation with my daughter (how I found myself homeschooling a perfectionist) and she walked me through how to respond. I had been having the right heart in wanting to help, but just wasn’t using the right tools. Here are the four steps she told me to do to when the situation next occurred.
Ok, so let’s put ourselves back in the situation at the beginning of this post. Your child is crying because they don’t want to get the answer wrong. Here’s what you can try to do as soon as the breakdown happens.
Four Steps to take When Homeschooling a Perfectionist
- Have Empathy. Tell the child that you understand that this is hard- that it is hard when you don’t get one right. Tell them that you experience the same thing. Give an example of when you made a mistake or didn’t do something perfectly and how that was hard for you.
- Help give the child words to describe his or her emotions. After you have given empathy, say something like, “I’m sure you are feeling overwhelmed” or “That must make you sad.” “Are you frustrated when you don’t get one right?” Try throwing some words out there that they could use to describe what they are feeling. It won’t necessarily be the same one every time so try to think of a variety of words that they can grab onto to help express what’s going on inside them.
- Try and find the actual thought behind the perfectionism. Hiding behind our actions a lot of times is a thought that is causing us to act a certain way. A lot of times it’s a lie. What’s the lie that is making your child so upset when they get one wrong? Ask something like, “Do you feel like you aren’t good enough when you don’t get one wrong?” Or “Do you not feel smart when you get one wrong?” Or “Do you feel like mommy won’t love you if you get one wrong?” See which one they nod at or seem to resonate with when you say it.
- Counteract that lie with something true and helpful. If it seems that they nodded or if their ears perked up when you said, for example, “Do you feel like mommy won’t love you when you get one wrong?” Then tell them that mommy loves them no matter if they get all the answers perfect. Tell them that God loves them always too. Explain to them that they are so loved and special no matter if they got all of them wrong or right. Give them some encouraging truth to fill their thoughts with.
Hope for You and Your Perfectionst Child
When I asked my daughter, “Do you feel like you aren’t good enough when you get one wrong?” she started crying even harder and nodding her head yes. When I started telling her all the truths to counteract that, you could almost feel a weight lift off off her shoulders. Slowly, the tears started slowing down. She took some deep breaths and I could tell that she felt understood and loved. We then resumed our math lesson in peace.
I couldn’t believe how much better it went after I implemented those steps. Now when that happens, we pause our school work and we go through the steps. And yes, I have a paper sitting next to me with these steps on it for when this happens. And also yes, I recognize that this isn’t going to fix everything. It is hard homeschooling a perfectionist child and takes lots of patience, love and hard work. I hope that this simply gives you an extra tool in your tool belt to help you love your child better and have more understanding for them now and in the future.