The Pitfalls of Perfectionism and How We Can Help Our Kids Deal With It

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My son with his bandmates at his California Scholarship Federation banquet where he was named valedictorian.

In a recent article in the Washington Post called “Perfectionism among teens is rampant (and we’re not helping)” by Rachel Simmons, the author has three good tips for parents to help their kids with feelings of pressure and anxiety which stem from perfectionism.

I’m a perfectionist and I slave over my articles looking for typos. I come unhinged when one gets by me. Then, I expected nothing less than greatness from my kids–who by the way–didn’t let me down. When my son wanted the title of valedictorian and set out a plan his freshman year, I was there to help him make it. I’d remind him of his goal and to not let up his senior year during his quest. My daughter’s goals were in swimming and she was hard on herself and would turn frustration and disappointment in herself into fuel to try again and succeed.

I remember back in the days when I’d volunteer in the classroom, I’d watch kids who couldn’t finish their work if their life depended upon it. They’d write a sentence and then erase it, repeatedly. It was never perfect enough for them and they’d end up with a smudgy mess, which caused them more distress. My heart ached for these kids, and I tried to let them know they could just write anything down and it would be okay. My son struggled with his college essays because he said, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever written” and he would stare at a blank computer screen for eight hours each day.

Here’s what I learned from the WAPO article about perfectionism and how it leads to anxiety and depression. However, there are ways we can help our kids overcome the problems with perfectionism:

 I’ve spent the last two years talking with parents about the unprecedented stress and anxiety plaguing their adolescents — nearly half of whom, according to recent studies of college students, report feeling “overwhelmed by all I had to do.” Our conversations often end with parents expressing a mournful wish: “I just want her to be happy,” they tell me. “But she puts so much pressure on herself.”

As parents, we say this phrase from a place of good intention. We want to signal to our children that we don’t need or expect them to be perfect, and that we will love them no matter what. Yet the very phrasing of the statement — “on herself” — lays blame for distress at the feet of our teens, rather than a culture that is stoking the flames of their anxiety. It puts the onus for change on kids – just chill, we seem to be saying, and you’ll be okay! – letting the rest of us off the hook, even as we may unwittingly exacerbate their distress.

In fact, we may be making it worse. A new study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” finds that young people are more burdened than ever by pressure from others, and that includes parents. Psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill found that unhealthy perfectionism has surged among young adults, with the biggest increase seen in those who feel pressured by the expectations of others. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, is a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”). In its unhealthiest forms, perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide.

Stop using those words. Parents might do well to consider a different tack. “It’s so hard right now to feel like anyone is successful enough,” you might say. “We are all feeling the pressure, and I hope you’ll tell me if I can do anything to make things easier.”

Look at the big picture. No matter how much you urge them to relax, and how much you mean it, your child probably grapples with highly stressful environments away from home, whether it’s where they go to school, the teams they play on, or the peers in their social circle. Most teenagers I know long for empathy from their parents about their struggle. Validating how tough it is out there will go a long way.

Make sure your actions match your words. Many teenagers I’ve talked to call their parents’ bluff when told that they just “want you to be happy.” They suspect what their parents secretly want is a high GPA. New research is confirming teens’ claims, finding that, when it comes to parents, there is often a split between what we tell our children — “just do your best!” — and what we may actually believe.

I believe the article I wrote last week about being “good enough” is important. It’s okay not to be the most outstanding, but more important to be balanced in life with love, work, hobbies and enjoying what you do.

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My daughter with some of her spoils from swimming.

 

How do you help your children overcome the tendencies of perfectionism?

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“LESS IS MORE”

 

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My son at the beach.

My husband said that under his breath last night. He was talking about a client who tries to time the market, buying and selling stocks and bonds–and make decisions that are too complicated. It made me think about our upcoming weekend plans where we’ve promised to clean out our closets and throw away stuff. It was 25 years ago we moved into our house! Yes, it’s time to clear out junk and go with the mantra “less is more.”

“Less is more” was first credited to a poem, Andrea del Sarto, by Robert Browning in 1855.

“Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.”

Later, a German-American architect Mies van der Rohe used “less is more” describe a stripped-down style of building design.

While researching “less is more” I ran into an article about a “less is more” Christmas plans for young kids in the Washington Post in “Trying to tame holiday gift excess? Here are 4 alternatives to a mountain of toys” by Lindsey M. Roberts:

When family life counselor Kim John Payne published “Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids” in 2009, he was warning us about how our supersize lives were affecting our kids. He was seeing kids who were unable to play by themselves in rooms full of toys, throwing frequent tantrums caused by overscheduling, and being diagnosed with behavioral disorders they didn’t have. He knew something needed to change.

“The too much, too soon, too sexy, too young — it’s become ubiquitous,” he says.

It turns out he was onto something with that “less is more” approach, particularly when it comes to holiday toys. Each year, as minimalism grows in popularity, Payne sees more parents embracing the call for less stuff and more time together.

The article interviews four people from a blogger to a book author about how they have pared down Christmas giving with their kids.

I remember our first Christmas with our baby boy. We had a Christmas tree that almost touched the ceiling and presents stacked almost as high. It was ridiculous and decadent. I also remember our son being fascinated with a bow and playing with it for hours on end. He completely ignored the Little Tikes blue car, the Playmobil table and chairs, and other creative brain-enhancing toys we purchased for him. It was an eyeopening experience and after that, we dialed it back. I also asked the grandparents to not overdo the gifts—and if they’d prefer—they could contribute to the college fund we had set up.

In Embracing “Less Is More” For Better Health, in the Idaho Senior Independent, an article by Carrie Stensrud talks about how “less is more” is important for those on a later end of the life spectrum, too.

From “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:”

“Minimalism is a style of extreme spareness and simplicity. Originally demonstrated in expressions of music or art, minimalism has gained momentum as a lifestyle, inspiring folks to keep only a minimum amount of belongings and sell or donate the rest. Some have taken the idea so far as to leave their homes and move into “tiny homes,” downsizing from a traditional house to spaces as small as 400 square feet.

“Despite varying degrees along the minimalist spectrum, the bottom line remains: ‘Less is more’ is better for your physical and mental health.

“To compound the problem, general disorganization results in not being able to find things when you need them. The risk of falling increases with rushing, worrying, and losing focus.

“Clutter around the home also creates places for bacteria, dust, and mold to collect. Exposure to increased levels of environmental hazards can aggravate allergies and other respiratory conditions, cause generalized inflammation, and even lead to chronic illness.”

I’m convinced. “Less is more” and I’m tackling my closet tomorrow.

 

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The blue car and Sherman the cat.

What are your thoughts about “less is more?”

 

One Tip for Parents: Don’t Speak

 

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My daughter swimming on her own during vacation.

I read a great article, “The first rule of sports (and all) parenting: Don’t speak,” in the Washington Post by Nancy Star:

 

Your child doesn’t have to play in the Super Bowl for you to know the feeling. Their team was supposed to win and then they didn’t. What do you do? Being the mother of two girls who played soccer and ran track, I thought I knew the answer: Talk it through. Tell them you love them. Say it’s just a game. Remind them there’s always a next time. Isn’t that what good parenting is all about? Keeping channels of communication open even in tough moments?

Turns out the answer is no. I learned this when I had a “don’t speak” moment.

I understand this all too well. After my kids would have a disappointing swim, I’d try to reassure them. I wanted to take away their hurt and make them feel better. Most often after I’d say, “That wasn’t so bad,” or “You have another swim ahead,” I’d be met with negativity and a statement like “I sucked!”

I’d get a barrage of negativity that would take me by surprise. I never figured out that I wasn’t making it better for my kids, but was making them feel worse. They weren’t ready to talk about a bad swim with me and “hash and rehash,” as my daughter would say. I read in a David Benzel sports parenting book, “From Chump to Champ,” that we should wait for our kids to talk to us. We need to be there and listen. But, if we start the conversation first, even with the best intentions, they’ll probably pull away and stay quiet. They want to please us so much and may take any little thing we say personally, as though they’ve let us down. It’s best to be quiet and listen. They may surprise us and open up more than ever if we let them take the lead.

Here’s more from the Washington Post article with the mom watching her daughter’s varsity soccer team lose their final meet. She received advice from a dad, Peter, who had more experience with soccer parenting and she followed it.

“Their lead slipped to a tie toward the end of the second half. In the last minute of play there was a stumble, scrambling and a goal for the other team.

Parents supplied transportation for home games, so we waited while our daughters gave sullen high-fives to the winners and then huddled with their coach, listening as he shared his disappointment. When he was done they separated and, backpacks slung over shoulders, trudged across the field toward where we stood.

Watching their grim faces approach I wished a meteorologist were present to confirm my suspicion that 22 high school girls who’ve just lost a chance at a state title can change the atmosphere, collectively sucking the light out of the sky. Their fury was frightening.

But Peter had been through this before. “Don’t speak,” he said. As I started to turn my head he added, “Don’t look. Just walk. Go to your car. She’ll find you.”

I tried not to move my lips as I objected. “All I want to say is I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” he advised. “Don’t speak. Not until she talks to you.”

Because he had been through this before, I listened and walked to my car alone. I felt her before I saw her, walking silently beside me. Reassuring phrases immediately formed in my brain but, channeling Peter, I said nothing.

A moment later I noticed her teammates walking with their parents, mothers mostly, who offered words of consolation. “Are you okay?” and “You played well,” and “There’s always next time.” To me the words sounded gentle and kind.

The girls did not agree. “No,” they snapped, and “I sucked,” and “There won’t be a next time.”

By the time we reached the car, every daughter except mine was crying and the moms were, understandably, annoyed and lashing back. “Why are you yelling at me?” and “Being upset is no excuse for being rude.”

We were silent on the ride home, silent as I turned on to our street. It was when I pulled into the driveway that my daughter finally spoke. “That was such a bad game.”

I nodded.”

How do you handle your children’s athletic or academic disappointment?

 

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Cheering on a teammate at the PAC 12 Champs.

 

 

5 Tips for Parents to Get Their Kids to Put Their Phones Down

 

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One thing about swimming: your kids can’t swim and text.

Every day there are articles about social media and how it affects our children. I see the issue when kids sit next to each other, not talking, but texting or posting. My own daughter got in trouble with her coach for inappropriate texts when she was in high school. I feel like social media can be a landmine for our children. What can we do as parents to help them avoid the problems and pitfalls?

 

In the Washington Post’s article “5 ways parents can help kids balance social media with the real world,” the author Adrienne Wichard-Edds, gives practical advice on what to do about the constant presence and temptation of smartphones and kids.

“According to a 2015 report from Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours a day consuming online entertainment.

“In search of advice on how to parent teens whose social lives hinge on a click, I turned to Ana Homayoun, a Silicon Valley-based expert on teen behavior. Her book Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World comes out next month.

“We’re having the wrong conversations with our kids around social media,” she says. “When we focus on fear and judgment — when we say ‘don’t do that because you’ll get in trouble,’ or ‘if you do that, you won’t get into college’ — kids will just go underground and find other ways to hide their online interactions.”

We all want our kids to be in the real world and spend less time online. But, what can we do about it? I’ve heard people argue that social media is fine and it’s a new way of communicating. My parents were annoyed with my brother and me who talked on the phone with our best friends for hours. My parents said more than once, “Why don’t you go over to their house, or have them over?” Kids no longer are attached to a long cord hooked to the wall but are posting and texting instead.

Here are five tips discussed in the article:

ONE
“Check your kid’s phone. “Particularly in middle school but also in high school, kids should know that parents can ask for their phones at any point and be allowed full access,” Homayoun says.

TWO
“Be app-savvy. “If your kid is on it, you should be, too,” Homayoun says of apps and social media platforms. “You don’t have to have an account, but at least try it out so you can have informed conversations about it. If your kids know that you understand the social media they’re using, they’re more likely to come to you to talk about issues that pop up.”

THREE
“Help kids understand their “why.” Inspire kids to act out of internal motivation instead of fear, Homayoun says, by helping them build their own filter. “Encourage your kids to ask themselves ‘Why am I picking up my phone? Am I bored, am I lonely, am I sad? Am I just uncomfortable because I’m in a room where I don’t know anyone?’

FOUR
“Set clear ground rules. Talk to your kids about appropriate social media use before you give them a phone or allow them to download a new app, says Homayoun.

FIVE
“Create opportunities for digital detox. “Give kids a budget to plan their own screen-free adventures — don’t just say, ‘Okay, kids, get offline and come do some chores,’ ” Homayoun says. She also points out that kids need to learn how to be okay with being offline.”

I’m curious about how other families deal with social media. My kids are older and I was the mom who said “no” to MySpace, Facebook etc. My kids had prepaid flip phones and their big thrill was to get one with a camera. Also, very few kids back then had access to smartphones. It was a big discussion with fellow parents about what age kids should have them. Now, they are part of our daily lives and I bet more kids have them than not.

What are your strategies for dealing with social media and younger kids?

 

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I had a pink phone like this in my bedroom and talked to my friends for hours.