Supporting a bright perfectionist who gives up if there's a risk of failure

(55 Posts)
poachedeggs Fri 13-Sep-13 12:35:09

DS is 6, and has never been a risk taker. He's cautious, sensitive and loves rules. He's just gone into primary 2 (he's 6) and he's finding some of the handwriting really tough going. The school are strong on basic literacy and the teachers are pushing the pupils to work hard this term, which I'm fully supportive of, but he's really feeling the pressure. I've spoken to his teacher and she's aware of this.

The thing is, he's bright (according to teachers, not just me!) but if he can't do something easily he gets frustrated, tearful and anxious, so he's struggling to develop a work ethic. I was the bright kid at school and very similar in that I lost confidence in myself, and it's held me back all my life. I want him to learn now how to deal with challenges, for his own good.

At the moment I'm flooding him with relentless positivity, using examples like riding his bike, reading and swimming, all things he used to find hard when learning but is now good at. I've explained that if something's hard he can make it easier by practising, and that it's OK to fail. But as a perfectionist myself it's difficult to be objective.

I'd be really grateful for any experiences, tips or ideas on how to help him learn to have confidence in himself and to persevere.

Acinonyx Fri 13-Sep-13 13:59:58

I've got one just like this and I'm still working on it. I've had some occasional successes by using examples of things I didn't start off doing well, for example I found some scribbling of mine from early childhood and dd was impressed with my inability to draw properly whereas I can now. Not that I want to encourage you to lie - but could you present an example of your own horrible handwriting now so much improved with practice?

Our big headache is arithmetic <<bangs head off wall just thinking about practicing tables>>

kkoo Fri 13-Sep-13 14:08:23

Wow - this could be me! Only my dd is 5 and just starting year one so I'm a step or two behind you. She won't try in swimming class - and cheats (walks through the water! cheeky), gets very upset about cycling, even with stabilisers, fear of failure is huge!
I will look forward to the responses.

MrsTruper Fri 13-Sep-13 14:15:04

My dd was/is just like that at around the same age. Much less so now though (she is 8). I think it might be partly a developmental phase, and partly in the genes (I am one too!)

You are tackling it in a similar way to me, and it did work.

I did 'make' my dd persevere at home, rather than give up (piano frustration and doing 'perfect' homework was her thing). I read somewhere that you can get into a vicious circle if you let the tears stop you finishing the work, as the child realises if they get tearful then the work can be postponed.

Now my dd knows that if she controls her frustration and stays calm she will finish the job sooner. She has learnt to do "good enough" work. (Took 2 years though, and an affirmation written on her bedroom wall!).

Good luck.

evertonmint Fri 13-Sep-13 14:22:09

This is my DS - age 5, Year 1. He does hugely well in any spoken situation, where he can share his knowledge or learn things so is clearly bright in that sense, but any physical skill is an area of huge stress for him - reading, writing, bike riding, swimming, drawing, tree climbing etc. He doesn't try until he knows he's good at something because he hates failing and wants to be perfect, which is hugely frustrating with something like reading where you have to practise and practise and practise to get it (I'm still learning words 30-odd years after starting!)

Bike riding is the big thing for him at the moment - his friends are all off stabilisers and he will barely ride his with because he doesn't think he can do it, so won't as he doesn't want to be rubbish, so can't because he doesn't try, so can't keep up with his friends, so would rather just stay on his scooter. He also has a fiercely independent streak so won't let us help him at all.

Because he won't apply himself to learning as he's scared to fail, he's not actually learning how to be tenacious and if there is one thing I don't want, it is a child who won't try his best or is lazy. So this is what is worrying me.

He occasionally makes sudden breakthroughs - he taught himself to swim on holiday last year, taught himself to snorkel on holiday this year, has made promising huge leaps in his maths recently. But reading and bike-riding: aaaargh! And if he learned to apply himself and take failure on the chin as part of learning, he would be learning two valuable skills - the skill he's focusing on, and the skill of working hard. How do I get him to see this when all he sees is "I can't do it first time so I won't try until I can"

This is my DS too. Has always been like this. Didn't walk or talk till he could do it perfectly. Finds reading hard, but we are working on explaining that he will only get better by practice.

Likewise with pp, he will not try that hard at swimming. I think he is not reaching his potential as he won't try at things.

neolara Fri 13-Sep-13 14:32:29

You need to read this. It will explain exactly what is going on for your ds and exactly what you need to do about it.

poachedeggs Fri 13-Sep-13 15:59:32

Well it seems I should be grateful that he's come on with the physical stuff. It hasn't been without a bit of frustration but he's gaining confidence steadily in that respect.

It just seems that with anything new he defaults to panic "can't do it" mode. He's been upset about being unable to do joined-up writing but they only started this on Monday! He still sometimes makes mistakes with letter formation so he is a long way off effortless handwriting, which is a fact I wish he'd accept so we can work on it.

It is really helpful to hear from others in this situation, thank you very much. I don't want to be a pushy parent but I think probably with DC like this you have got to be firm and make them do things sad

FreckleyGirlAbroad Fri 13-Sep-13 16:40:31

neolara has just said what I was going to say. During my teacher training I did some research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and read a lot about Carol Dweck and what she has researched on fixed and growth mindsets. Sounds like your ds fits perfectly into the fixed mindset group.

poachedeggs Fri 13-Sep-13 20:57:46

I've done a bit of googling and skimmed through a couple of papers on praise, and it comes right around to Kohn and conditional parenting, doesn't it? LOTS of food for thought.

WafflyVersatile Fri 13-Sep-13 21:02:39

Are you praising effort rather than results or saying he is good at this or a good boy for doing something right?

you worked really really hard at learning to ride a bike and it's really worth the effort isn't it because you love riding your bike. you really tried hard even if you fell off and I was proud of how you didn't give up.

that sort of thing?

poachedeggs Fri 13-Sep-13 21:08:15

I'm trying to focus on effort. Reminding him of things he's done that were hard but which he succeeded at with effort. It's really difficult though, praise sort of falls out without me thinking about it sometimes. Doesn't help that I'm a dreadful people pleaser, a sucker for praise and perfectionist in the extreme. I need to look at me as much as DS I think.

TeenAndTween Sat 14-Sep-13 15:03:29

I agree with waffly, praise the effort not results.

I see you are trying really hard with that.
Wow, you've perservered on that for ages.
Look at how XXX is practicing kicking that ball.
You used interesting words in that story

Try not to say

You're so clever for doing that
Look you got all your spelling right in that story

Longtallsally Sat 14-Sep-13 15:17:05

Ooh this is me and my ds too. It sounds silly but he came through it himself in the end, aged about 8, when he was playing a computer based game that he found hard, but wanted to -beat- -his- -friend- play so badly that he kept on practising until he got it. I vividly remember that he sat, with tears streaming down his cheeks, teeth gritted and kept going until he got it sorted. It was hard to watch, as a) it was just a game, and not worth getting upset over, but b) he was battling that instinct to give up and avoid it, and just wouldn't let himself. (I kept wondering what the MN advice would be! "But he his hour on the computer is nearly up. Should I pull the plug now?!) I let him keep going and also managed to praise him for his effort rather than for the outcome on that occasion, as it was sooooo bloody obvious, and it set a really useful example for him for anything else that he found difficult.

So IME as long as you are aware of this trait in him, and in yourself, he will find new things that he wants to achieve and you will probably be able to talk to him about it as he gets older. He may well grow through it, with your help, and a little nudging along the way.

Periwinkle007 Sat 14-Sep-13 15:17:36

I have 1 like this, 2nd one shaping up to be similar but not quite so extreme (less violent and aggressive or hysterical)

I have no advice at all, quite frankly it makes me feel like I must be a terrible mother because I am obviously getting something seriously wrong

poachedeggs Sat 14-Sep-13 16:15:05

Peri I think if you're anything like me part of the blaming yourself is your own personality and part of it is because our actions in dealing with it quite obviously exacerbate things.

I don't think it makes us terrible mothers. I think there's room for improvement though <making a big effort to look at life this way now!>

hillian Sat 14-Sep-13 16:25:00

Ds1 is a bit like this and it is a recognised problem in very bright children. it is called perfectionism. It makes the person miserable and it can lead to severe underperformance.
Boosting their self confidence all the time seems to be part of the solution.
Disclaimer: I haven't got it right yet. I am still groping my in the dark.

Google perfectionism or read about on the potentialplus website and you'll get better explanations than I can give.

pointythings Sat 14-Sep-13 18:45:07

DD1 was like this in YR3. She'd stare at a piece of work, panic about not doing it well enough for a long time, then rattle off something in desperation which was still well above average but short of what she could do. We tackled it in collaboration with DD's class teacher, who was amazing and taught my DD that you learn by failing at things, not by succeeding at them every time. I'd second going along with praising effort, identifying progress however small and also emphasising that handwriting develops as you get older and keeps changing - as long as he works hard and produces legible work, he's doing fine.

poachedeggs Sat 14-Sep-13 19:21:32

We've just spent half an hour going through Google images talking about neurones and how they get stronger and make more connections when you make mistakes and practise things. He was captivated, I was really surprised how interested he was, and how encouraging he found the concept that mistakes help him grow more. There's an app called "Ned the Neuron" although unfortunately it's only available for iPhone. Anyway, that seemed to be an approach to understanding learning which he's very open to.

I think it'll all get easier as term goes on. He's really tired and emotional just now, trying to take in new things and it's all a bit much. I feel like I have direction to help him with this too, thanks smile

This brings back so many horrible memories for me.

I have zero work ethic, am a terrible procrastinator, rubbish at meeting deadlines / setting myself targets. On paper I have massively underachieved. I get by because I am very bright and stubborn and I have a good memory. It's a terrifying place to be.

Throughout my childhood I was told off for coasting, told I didn't try hard enough, was told I was not meeting my potential etc. I was rewarded entirely on the result rather than the amount of effort I put in. My parents said things like "98%? What happened to the other 2%?" I chose the easiest work available rather than the most interesting as the thought of not getting the highest mark was much worse than doing something dull that I knew I could do.

My experience ties in with all the research cited by Kohn / done by Dreck. For this reason I try very hard to unconditionally parent my DS, but it is difficult. He has just started school, so we will see how we go, but he already loathes getting anything wrong, or losing, even in a game of chance.

Periwinkle007 Sat 14-Sep-13 19:32:26

I do blame myself yes because I have the same personality and it has made my life so difficult. I really have tried so hard to avoid 'passing it on' so to speak by trying to praise effort, trying to let them see me make mistakes so that they know it is ok to etc but it doesn't seem to work with her. Am hoping as she gets a bit bigger it will naturally sort itself out a bit but am currently trying to apply thrive techniques to help her (http://www.thriveprogramme.org/ - Rob Kelly)

poachedeggs Sat 14-Sep-13 19:47:54

Travel you are me!

I'm externally successful I guess, professional degree/job, but I feel much thicker than I used to be grin I crammed my way through life. If I hadn't known what I wanted to do in terms of vocation I'd never have got this far. I'm now in a position where I want to take another qualification, in many ways to cement my existing knowledge as much as to build on it, but I'm scared of being unable to do it.

This thread has really opened my eyes -I've been feeling sort of unsettled for a long time, assumed it was an early midlife crisis, but I think this confidence/ability issue has a lot to do with it.

poachedeggs Sat 14-Sep-13 19:53:19

Thanks for the link Peri.

I wonder if this ties in with the very high suicide rate in my profession? Over achievers putting too much pressure on themselves is usually cited as a factor.

smile
Therapy helped me. But it is a loooong and expensive process.

grants1000 Sat 14-Sep-13 19:57:45

Just because he can't yet do some things his peers can or can't do, does not make him behind, nor should it be a situation where it makes him anxious. He is not you and you should not look at him through the glasses of your own childhood issues/concerns, which we all have.

Also remember they grown develop and mature, a 5yo is very different at 7, 9 & 11. I look back with my 11 yo DS and see this so very clearly. Please don't push a nod pressurise and compare so much, you don't need to do this. They need time, support and freedom to grown and develop, not to be micro managed and fretted upon.

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