My son, who is in first grade, is a real perfectionist. When the teacher gives a spelling test and he gets stuck on one of the words, he refuses to continue the test. What can I tell the teacher to help him ‘let go’ and ‘move on’? How should I approach this with him when talking about it?
There are many reasons why it’s great to be a perfectionist. However, Perfectionists often have a hard time dealing with ‘disappointment’ and ‘frustration’. They expect things to be perfect and when things aren’t, that’s very disappointing to them.
Try the following first- and we can move on to a different approach if this doesn’t work as well as you would like.
*Catch the child when they’re in the mood to open up and talk (usually after bedtime or during school hours work best!) and do the following*
1. Have him try really hard to identify the emotion he feels when he can’t do things perfectly (ex: is it Embarassment? Is it Disappointment? Frustration? Fear of someone?)
2. Explore and zero in on the exact problem with him (Ex: in this case, he gets upset and can’t move on during the test…)
3. Then, have him discuss the need to be perfect to you (Ex: I’m afraid ppl will make fun of me if I don’t do well, I’m scared my mom will be disappointed if I don’t get 100%, I studied hard and think it’s unfair that the teacher asked a hard question)
After asking the right questions, and you’ve learned a little about what bothers him, that itself should be eye-opening.
4. [This step is optional] To deal with the anxiety of not being perfect, walking through “worst case scenario” with him may help him feel prepared for the next time this might happen. “What do you think will happen if the next time you take a spelling test, you don’t get even one question right on your test?” Walk through the worst possible scenerio with him and let him talk about what he would do. This gives him the tools and the safety of being prepared for any situation (Then you can ask him what the odds of that happening are and how he would feel if he knew only half the test etc. …)
5. Next comes the Problem-Solving stage (Under ‘Services’ – ‘Children’ above, there is a Problem-Solving Sheet. Feel free to use that and fill that out.) Now that we know the problem and how he feels about it, what can/will he do next time this comes up on a test? Brainstorm and come up with at least 2- 3 solutions and write them down. Help him only if he can’t think of any on his own. (Ex: cry, refuse to continue, tell himself that he’ll be okay, ask the teacher for help, remind himself that even though it’s hard for him- you’ll be proud of him of how he’s dealing with it, it’s OK for him not to know every answer…) This should help him be “unstuck” by realizing that there are other options he can do when this comes up next.
Practicing with perfectionists can be helpful also. In therapy, I’ve used a “gradual exposure” technique by having the child ‘gradually be exposed to disappointment’. For instance, I would let them color and I would prepare him for disappointment so that we can practice dealing with it. Ex: Once they’re in the middle of coloring, I’d push their hand or draw a line thru their picture and have them deal with him right then and reflect on how they’ve done.
Self-talk is another great way for children and adults to talk them through a truly disappointmenting moment: “I’m really disappointed that my homework isn’t perfect but tomorrow is another day and with practice, I’ll get better.”
Also, remembering and reminding kids that “we can’t always control what happens, but we CAN control our reactions to what comes our way” may be helpful. Perhaps, he can even make himself a sign to leave on his desk to remind him…
Motivating, rewarding and congratulating success is crucial. Next time your son takes a test and has this issue- and problem-solves appropriately, let him come home and tell you and, in my humble opinion, that definitely calls for some ice cream :-)
Hope this helps! Let me know and please post to let us know how it goes (if possible)…