Recently, I heard from a parent about her child who over reacts to his mistakes and accidents. The child is highly sensitive about doing something the “right way” or is worried about doing something wrong.
Mistakes are a part of life and everyone makes them. Parents have a hand in helping their kids to get comfortable with this reality. What a critical lesson this is.
The manner and degree to which a child processes and reacts to his mistakes, accidents, and missteps sometimes can be seen starting at an early age. There are many things at play, some of which came with the factory equipped model and others that reflect the environment in which the child lives. The sensitivity to and/or fear of making mistakes or doing something “wrong” can manifest as a child who won’t try new things, who won’t speak up in a group, won’t take risks, or who simply falls apart when he thinks he has done something less than expected.
Children are born with certain predispositions to physical, social, and emotional sensitivities. It is part of the “factory equipped model” you got. Each is born with her/his temperament, while her personality develops as a combination of environment and temperament. Our temperament is the HOW of who we are. And it is measured by characteristics like activity level, distractability, intensity, regularity, persistence, anxiety, sensitivity. If you look carefully at your child (or yourself!) you can recognize characteristics that have manifest since the very beginning of her life.
Beyond and as important, children pick up and absorb the environments in which they are raised. Whether they watch the way you react in various situations or are the recipients of your regular assessments of them, they become a reflection of that environment, expectations and all.
Picture the two-year-old who is running, then falls, and begins to scream. He looks to his parent or caregiver and takes in her reaction. She may have a look of horror on her face, and race to pick up the child. Or she may shrug it off and tell the child to pick himself up, or a version of either response. Either way, the child gets a clear message about how to process his accident. He is asking, “Am I okay? What do I do here?” (Of course, we are not talking about those bad falls that really really hurt. Rather I mean the ones that could go either way.)
All home environments are flavored by the inhabitants. But it is the parents who set the tone, the standards, the expectations for the family. (Whether or not the children meet those expectations is a whole different topic.) Every adult has stories to share about his/her parents and what it was like in that home. I have clients who describe how hard their own parents were on them about grades or cleanliness or respect or whatever. It is difficult always to be cognizant of the unintended messages messages taking root in your child. But there is no question that the home tone shapes who the adult becomes, positively or negatively.
Children who live in an environment flavored by a parent’s personal perfectionism, may easily develop an internal judge, quick to self-criticize. The parent may not even impose her own tendencies on the child. But that child observes and absorbs those standards, and he applies them to himself.
Those environments, whether home or school, where judgement is frequent and standards may be inappropriately high or just plain unreasonable, can also yield a child who is hyper sensitive or just plain hard on himself.
Rather than delve into this kind of perfectionism and its roots, let’s look at what can be done about it. While I don’t believe that the parent is necessarily the cause of child’s particular sensitivity (genetics aside), I do believe the parent plays a big role in the “cure.”
- Believe that making mistakes is a part of real life. If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying anything new, you are not taking risks, you are not putting forth enough effort, and you are not living life.
- Know that making mistakes is how people learn, especially children. Accepting that mistakes are part of learning gives us the chance to reach and grow. Remember the story of the girl who always drew dogs? Why did she, because she was always told how fabulous her dogs were. Too scary to try to draw anything else.
- Do not expect perfection. Truly, it does not exist, and it should not be your goal. And remove the word “perfect” from your vocabulary.
- Emphasize effort over outcome. This does not necessarily mean trying your BEST. (No one can always do that, especially fearful children.) This means trying even a little bit, as a little bit leads to greater effort. Mistakes are evidence that we are trying.
- Do not point to a child’s past mistakes. Instead, work on the problem and the solution at hand. No salt in the wound, please.
- Adopt and practice a “growth mindset” in life with your children. Focus on your children’s efforts and not on what they produced. Read everything you can by Carol Dweck who pioneered the concept of the Growth Mindset. (This is just one of her many presentations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-71zdXCMU6A )
- Resist commenting on or evaluating the product of a child’s work. Rather than saying, “I love your painting; it’s beautiful!” try saying, “Wow, you worked so hard on that painting. You used so many colors.”
- Model making mistakes and react lightly or with humor. Spill the water, burn the dinner, knock over a vase, break a glass, do a bad job. Then acknowledge your mistake and let you child hear you say, “Oh well, next time I will use less salt in the stew.”
- Teach or model self-talk. “Oh silly me, I turned the wrong way and now we’re going to be a bit late. Oh well, next time I will think about the route before we leave.” Discuss the concept of self-talk including owning what you have done and what you need to do. Let you child know that it helps you to feel better and move on. You are teaching the child to be his own judge, too.
- Model how you recover and move on from mistakes. Be kind to yourself and do not dwell on your mistake. You can state that you wish you had been more careful or had done something differently. Let that be the end of it.
- Model how mistakes are an opportunity to fine-tune. State out loud what you think you’ll do differently next time. “The next time I make those cookies, I’ll use less chocolate. That way they won’t be so runny.”
- Do not rescue your child from his mistake. Rather, help him to focus on what to do next.
- Mistakes should be opportunities for problem solving. Together with your child discuss what he might do differently to get the result he wants. Talk about all the things he could try.
Here’s what Mary Pickford said: If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down.