Published On: Wed, Nov 15th, 2023

Our son is a perfectionist and gets easily frustrated

Our son is a perfectionist and gets easily frustrated
Our son is a perfectionist and gets easily frustrated

Q: I have an 8-year-old son who tends to have strong opinions and to be a perfectionist. It’s a tad genetic. My husband and I also have strong opinions and want things the way we want them. My son wants to be good at something immediately and I worry that will prevent him from trying or sticking with something new. When he learns something new, like tennis, he gets easily frustrated that he’s not good at it and it’s only the second time he’s picked up a racket. He tends to be hard on himself, too, saying his shot was horrible. He is not very good at losing anything — a card game, a casual game of basketball, whatever. I have tried saying “Let’s practice losing. I’ll go first.” I have tried winning sometimes and losing sometimes. When he wins he is very happy. When I win at a game, he usually comes up with a reason that what I did doesn’t count so he actually won. Any advice or suggestions? I’m not sure whether this is two separate things or all wrapped together.

A: Thank you for writing in; you are certainly not alone in parenting a perfectionist child. To begin, perfectionism is not genetic, but anxiety is, and some of what you are saying makes me wonder if that’s what you’re mostly dealing with here.

I don’t know whether you and your husband have formal diagnoses, but I am curious about what you say are “strong opinions and want things the way we want them.” It is not uncommon for anxious adults to have children with some anxiety, so it’s worth checking in with yourselves. As for your son, please talk to his pediatrician if you feel like his perfectionism (which could be the result of anxiety) is taking up his whole life. There is a lot written about anxiety and perfectionism in childhood, so you may want to do a little research on this to gauge his anxiety level.

Then you should think about what he is experiencing at home. Are you modeling your “strong opinions” (i.e. inflexibility) to your son? If both of his parents are narrow about their views and particular about their needs, wouldn’t it stand to reason that your son would pick up on that and take on those characteristics? We see this most frequently when parents are sarcastic and mean around their kids and their children imitate that language. Children pick up all kinds of values from you.

So my first bit of advice is to check your own language and behavior in front of your son. Start being open, flexible, nuanced, and comfortable with losing and learning, especially when you’re with him.

I’m also going to give you some especially hard advice right now: Detach yourself from outcomes when it comes to your son. Winning, losing, it doesn’t matter. Choose games that focus on pure play in which there’s no real result. This can feel sacrilegious in our culture, but by focusing on play or doing something for the pure joy of it, you tap back into the magic of childhood. You also release the pressure of winning, learning or even being “good” at something. It is natural for humans to enjoy work and accomplishment, but when perfectionism and fear of failure loom too large, it is easy for children to get stuck. And that sounds like where your son is now.

As for the frustration your son is experiencing, I strongly recommend reading “The Gift of Failure” by Jessica Lahey. Lahey has done the research for you, and the book creates a strong argument for why trying to prevent failure keeps children from learning resilience and having a growth mind-set. (Essentially, if you think it is bad now, wait until he gets older!)

I’m not suggesting that it is easy to watch our children suffer when they lose or feel scared, but when we interrupt that process, we stop our children’s big emotions from moving through, and they need that to learn how to live in this world.

Remember, no emotion lasts forever. Your son may say he’s awful and cannot learn, he may yell and stomp his feet, but if you stay quiet and nearby, these emotions will soon run their course. Visualize it like a circle: The frustration of feeling vulnerable or afraid or different begins and builds. It reaches the top of the circle as a tantrum, explosion or unkind language and then, if you don’t interfere, the emotions will begin to fall and dissipate.

Your son may need more support, such as therapy with someone who specializes in anxiety, so keep your pediatrician in the loop. I would also suggest a good parent coach who specializes in helping parents with anxious children, but be ready to also grow and change. You can say all the right things to your son, but if you are trapped in an anxiety loop with your child, it is hard for anyone to grow and improve. Get Lahey’s book and some good support. Good luck!

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