Firstborns and only children tend to carry a burdensome load: perfectionism.
My firstborn cried out of frustration in elementary school many times unable to immediately master a skill. I noticed he changed dramatically as he grew older and became seemingly lazy and unmotivated; it took us awhile to understand he was still a perfectionist, but gave up even trying because it hurt too much to fail. We did not take any responsibility for the problem as in our minds we did not as parents put a lot of pressure on him.
The truth is, we eventually realized, the perfectionist instinct in firstborns and only children is strong in part because of the parents.
We don’t intentionally encourage this tendency, it just happens. Think about it: The closest role models for the firstborn child are the parents, not an sibling. It’s hard for little people to measure up to an adult. Combine the pressure these kids put on themselves with the tendency for parents to hold their first child to high standards, and you end up creating a perfectionist.
Your child will not likely tell you that he or she picks up on every expectation you have, even when you do not expect perfection. If you tend to have perfectionistic tendencies yourself, you may unwittingly encourage them by modeling that behavior. An oldest or only child strives to live up to the standards they believe you have for them, whether or not you actually have them.
Many firstborns are high achievers.
Wanting to be the best can work to your child’s advantage in the long-run: many firstborns are successful in school, sports and careers. In fact, half of all Nobel Prize winners and American presidents have been first born. So what’s the problem? Setting high goals is definitely not a bad thing, but there is a difference between striving for excellence versus perfection. A good work ethic is important, but unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment. If unchecked, perfectionism can prove debilitating.
What constitutes a perfectionist?
We all want our children to work hard to achieve. The problem is if your child is one who establishes unrealistic goals, expecting everything to go perfectly as planned. They will never be satisfied with their performance if that’s the case. This type of all or nothing thinking means they consider 99 on a difficult test to be a failure instead of an opportunity to celebrate how well they did.
Qualities you may see in your perfectionistic offspring include:
• Self-critical, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed
• Highly sensitive to criticism
• Very critical of other people
• Difficulty completing assignments because the work is never ‘good enough’
• Procrastinating to avoid difficult tasks
• Trouble making decisions or prioritizing tasks
• Low frustration tolerance when a mistake is made
• High anxiety level
How do you address perfectionism in your child?
These strategies might help relieve some of the stress your child feels.
Praise efforts rather than outcome.
Praise your child for studying hard rather than for getting a perfect score on the spelling test. Also, whenever possible, make it clear that achievement isn’t the only important thing in life by complementing kindness you see them showing others.
Share stories of your own failures. Your child needs to know you aren’t perfect. Talk about the time you didn’t get a job or when you failed a test.
Teach healthy coping skills.
Although failure is uncomfortable, it’s not intolerable. Teach your child how to deal with disappointment, rejection, and mistakes in a healthy way. Talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or drawing a picture are just a few coping skills that help deal with feelings.
Model healthy self-talk.
Teach self-compassion as opposed to self-criticism. Show your child that you treat yourself with kindness even when you make a mistake. For example, if you burn dinner. tell them you weren’t paying attention and calmly find something else for everyone to eat. Let them know mistakes happen and you are aware you need to pay more attention next time.
Monitor your expectations.
Take a good long look at yourself to make sure you aren’t unintentionally putting pressure on your child to be perfect. Create high but reasonable expectations. Reevaluate periodically to determine if you are expecting too much.
Teach your child some things are out of our control
Make sure your child knows that while he or she can work hard to excel, they cannot control other variables such as how hard the teacher grades, or how demanding the basketball coach is on the players..
Set manageable goals.
Talk to your child about setting achievable goals to helpset themselves up for success.
Help your child develop healthy self-esteem. Provide opportunities to help your child feel good about who they are, not just what they accomplish. Volunteering, learning new things, and engaging in artistic endeavors are just a few ways to help your child develop a healthier view of self.
The bottom line
If you’re raising a perfectionist, you’ve likely seen firsthand how difficult it can be. If left unchecked, this character trait can be paralyzing. Yes, we all want our kids to strive for excellence, but we need to teach them not achieving a goal does not mean they are a failure if they tried their best. Instead, teach them that failing provides information to learn from later on.