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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.

Lemonytrees Mon 16-Sep-13 13:24:28

Ds is like this too. You have my sympathies as it can be really hard to see them like this. He finds a lot of things easy, but absolutely cannot cope when he can't do something easily. Like morethanpotatoprints I was going to suggest a musical instrument. This has taught him patience, he still gets angry and upset when he can't do it straight away, but always comes back eventually (without any encouragement from me). He has learnt to break things down into more manageable chunks and the joy of practising something until it's perfect

rhetorician Mon 16-Sep-13 12:06:59

Oh I have one of these as well! She is not yet 5, just started school. Teacher said to me this morning "when DD decides not to do something there's no moving her. She just says 'I don't like my picture'" she too will not try things because she is scared to fail. Tries things once, doesn't work, cue wailing and frustration. Sister totally different (not yet 2). Builds tower, tower falls down, dd2 laughs and just does it again. And again. It is temperament. It's hard to see them not fulfilling their potential, and hard to support them, but I find it useful to remember that bright as she may be (she is, but has none of the skills that some of her peers have because she hasn't learned how to try) her reactions to these things are all about her emotions. I have had some success with bribery (!), e.g. Getting her so focused on the reward that she will keep trying. And once she has done the task once, then she is sorted.

daftdame Mon 16-Sep-13 10:58:52

I find breaking down tasks really helpful for my DC.

For example with a piece of writing, getting him to ask himself some questions relating to the topic and then answering them helps.

Eg Where is this story set? - A wood. What is the wood like? Dark. What is in the wood? A small mouse. When does the story take place? The evening. With this information you could get, "Once there was a small mouse who lived in a dark wood. One evening..." as a story opener.

Then, if he is able to write in rough first, that can help lessen the pressure. After this you can have a check list to make sure he has capital letters and full stops etc, add some 'wow' words for example 'minuscule' instead of 'small'. Then he can copy out - but this is easy as he has to think less about what to write.

wordfactory Mon 16-Sep-13 09:44:04

Perfectionism is the enemy of achievement. It will always hold a person back.

One of the best ways to help DC with such tendencies is to lead from the front.

Take risks yourself. Get out of that comfort zone. Fail. Laugh about it...

Quincejelly Mon 16-Sep-13 09:37:45

I can only say, as mentioned by earlier posters, read Carol Dweck!

I found her book "Self Theories" really useful on this topic - as someone who was myself also this kind of child...

morethanpotatoprints Sun 15-Sep-13 19:23:36


My dd was like this too and still is with everything but music.
I think she has found what she is good at and she will persevere until she has it right. She is not very good academically and won't try if she can't do it first time.

difficultpickle Sun 15-Sep-13 15:37:16

Personally I see no difference between school work and learning an instrument. Both require effort and application and a child who won't do either for fear of failing won't achieve in either sphere (she says having spent all of this afternoon trying to get ds to do 20 mins piano practice). We have also watched some of the triathlon. Ds is interested in the amount of work it takes to be an elite athlete but gives up at the first hurdle of everything he tries if he doesn't get it right first time.

tribpot Sun 15-Sep-13 12:15:32

hillian, one I think I do with my ds is talking about how his granny (my mum) will also give up on things if she thinks she won't be able to do them, like learning how to send email. He will quite often respond then spontaneously with 'but Granny must give things a try, how will she ever learn?' - and that can then turn back to 'that's quite right but so must you' etc.

FreckleyGirlAbroad Sun 15-Sep-13 11:39:48

You could always try discussing with him about how the brain is like a muscle and it needs training and working out to get bigger and stronger. A runner has to practice and train to improve his muscles and we need to do the same with our brain if we want it work better!!

hillian Sun 15-Sep-13 11:33:06

Sometimes DS1 has had me in tears with the way he bullies himself. Even when he has done something that is good by anyone's standards, he still beats himself up for being inadequate.
He was doing it yesterday and when anyone contradicts his negative view, he's intelligent enough to reject their opinion with a "well, you would say that, wouldn't you?".
He is intelligent enough to be able to effectively challenge adults opinions but not intelligent enough to see how blatantly wrong his analysis of himself is!
He's 11 and his bullying of himself is getting harder and harder to overcome.sad

Ectoplastastic Sun 15-Sep-13 11:01:35

I have a child like this. She is not a "trier", she doesn't like to be out of her comfort zone, doesn't like to fail. What she does seem to need is to observe and listen and take time out to think and process. She will rarely be the first to try something new but when she has had enough time to work it out in her head (and this might be in terms of minutes, or it might be in terms of months), she will try it and then generally it up quickly. More often than not, putting pressure on just causes upset and frustration and a complete switching off from learning.

Our solution, which is probably not terribly helpful, is home education. It means that my child can learn in a way and at a pace that suits her. It isn't why we chose home education, but it does validate our original decision! I have had to learn to step back, not put pressure on and to trust that skills and learning will eventually come, which so far they have. I suspect that in a school environment it is very difficult to take this pressure off when the school is setting the timetable for learning to take place.

Periwinkle007 Sun 15-Sep-13 10:20:26

I agree Grants has obviously not got experience of this.

Children like this (and I was one of them) seriously pile all the pressure on themselves, there isn't really anything anyone can do to help them. It is a personality trait and it is horrible, the child is suffering, they are anxious and stressed. They then invariably grow up into an adult who is self critical and pushes themselves. some people do learn a way to deal with it but it would be unusual for them to find this out for themselves so as parents we owe it to them to try and help them. You can praise your child as much as you want to but if they don't believe for themselves that what they have done is good then it makes no difference and yes if you let them just throw it across the room and walk away then they will never learn to experience failure and then practice to get a bit better at something, even if they never get very good at it they will learn that the practice can actually be the most fun bit.

I don't know what the answer is, I wish I did, I am hoping the book I am reading will help me put some things into practice to help make my daughters happier and more confident but believe me as a parent of a child like this and as a person with this personality myself you will only understand when you experience. All children display some of these traits, same as with ASD, all children display some of the traits but until you really experience a child with a genuine problem you will never actually understand what it is like and how crippling it can be for them. Trust me when I say that the parents on this thread with children like this know what they are talking about and they know that this isn't the same behaviour as many other children and all they want to do is make their child's life happier. Isn't that what ALL parents want for their child?

I don't care if my child gets some of her spellings wrong but SHE does, SHE wants a gold star from the teacher, SHE will be distraught and cross with herself if she gets one wrong. SHE will be upset if she gets a maths question wrong. I don't care. I want her to do well but I honestly am not bothered if she isn't going to be a top neurosurgeon. I just want her to be happy.

morethanpotatoprints Sat 14-Sep-13 22:41:50

Sorry, I meant to add. The attitude to school work is different because we are told from an early age that we have to be good at Maths and English, oh and science is important. There is pressure that comes from many directions irrespective of a person's personality to being sensitive to it. Much of it is unintentional but the dc become anxious and upset.
Music and other art forms can take this away as its rare you here Oh you must be good at piano, flute, violin etc.

tribpot Sat 14-Sep-13 22:38:01

grants, I have to agree with poachedeggs. This is certainly not pressure coming from me in my case - I only ever tell ds that the only thing he has to do at school is try his best, and I praise his effort grades far more than his attainment ones. (As my mum did with me and my brother, as we are very different in terms of academic achievement).

What we are trying to do is get our children to relax and not be so hard on themselves. It's hard when it goes against their natural programming.

poachedeggs Sat 14-Sep-13 22:32:52

grants it seems to me you have no experience of this problem.

It's distressing to see him unhappy. He's unhappy because he expects too much of himself and beats himself up if he doesn't succeed instantly. And you're saying that's all the fault of the parents for being pushy.But he's never been pushed. This is his personality.

Your overanalysing is me trying to give my miserable child some practical support.

morethanpotatoprints Sat 14-Sep-13 22:29:51

Hello OP.

It really doesn't get much better with age. Our dd is 9 and slowly improving but it was playing music that helped.
I would seriously advise anybody who has a child like this to encourage them with a musical instrument. Preferably one they can't throw across the room when they get it wrong/ don't get it right.
It encourages patience and that with practice you gain rewards of finding it easy. If it is introduced in a fun way as a different entity to school work, then bingo.
Now dd is a perfectionist with her music and no doubt will always have the same personality, its just harnessed more now.

tribpot Sat 14-Sep-13 22:26:20

My ds is another one who is very similar to this. He compares himself unfavourably to other boys in his class - no amount of pointing out he is a summer born, one of the youngest in the year, has the slightest effect of course. He hates to lose and basically refused to learn to swim for 5 years because it was too hard.

And then this summer, literally as he turned 8, something clicked. The school have been reinforcing, as have I, the fact that sometimes you have to practice to get good at something and lo and behold, he's learnt to swim and become confident of trying new stuff in the water. He's learning to ride - after his first lesson I was completely convinced he'd come back to me and say he never wanted to do that again, and in fact he was completely enthusiastic and eager to try again. I thought the same about his singing lessons last year and he's stuck with that as well, actually.

He still gets very frustrated with video games and isn't keen to be competitive with other children, but much better and finding coping strategies - being the keeper of the spinny thing when playing Twister with his cousins, for example.

I would use parents' evening to have a word with his teacher and make sure he/she is encouraging him appropriately. Stress and anxiety, even self-inflicted, is not good for him - he needs to feel he is doing well at something. Does he have something outside school to focus on?

grants1000 Sat 14-Sep-13 22:26:17

Mrs Truper - your post makes me feel so angry and hmm. Pushing your DC's to tears with work then pushing to finish in case they think tears will mean they can stop?

How about a reassuring hug, leaving the work for a few minutes or until later and they are happier and calmer to do it well with a supportive parent as opposed to one that makes her cry? FFS

grants1000 Sat 14-Sep-13 22:21:54

You all need reminding that you DC's are 5/ they are not cheating when walking on the bottom of the pool, they are learning. If they are not so keen on stabilisers, back off, do it little and often, they are not scared. They all little people starting off in the world, instead if all this hyper critical, labelling how about some gentle, hand holding and love? So what if they wont't try, why such a big deal?

I can guarantee you will look back in a few years and think what a waste of time you spent with such unnecessary fretting and over analysing. Back off, have fun and make your home the safe, warm haven it is supposed to be not you looking at your DC with yet another fretful face because its not 100% perfect/correct/as it should be/the same as his peers etc etc etc.

poachedeggs Sat 14-Sep-13 22:08:16

I just want him to be happy. At the moment he's anxious, unhappy and stressed. I can't take that pressure off him because it's coming from school and himself. But maybe I can help him learn how to deal with things better so he doesn't have to be unhappy.

I don't really think there's a quick fix. I didn't mean to give the impression that I thought there was. This thread has given me lots to think about, personally and in terms of how I relate to/try to support my DS. He's not gifted, I'm not hot- housing him, he's just unhappy and Iwant to help him, which I think is probably natural.

Periwinkle007 Sat 14-Sep-13 21:37:49

sorry bisjo - I misunderstood

ProbablyJustGas Sat 14-Sep-13 21:32:25

Agree with others on praising effort. I think it is harder than it looks when you've been brought up with getting stickers and tick marks for having the right answers yourself, but acknowledging effort and progress ("look how much you've finished, you couldn't do that a week ago") as opposed to correctness has helped us motivate DSD to keep at her classwork. We also used to sit with her while she was doing homework, which led us to pointing out every little mistake she made, which really wound her up and led to quitting. These days, we let her sit down on her own and get on with it, and ask her to let us know if she's struggling with something. It is a little easier to encourage her with her math than her spelling - mistakes in math, we can ask her to check again, but mistakes in spelling we sometimes have to let slide.

DSD is her daddy's kid. Turbo-competitive and hates to lose. :-p Heaven forbid you beat her at a game, whether it's a race, football, Snap or Connect 4.

difficultpickle Sat 14-Sep-13 21:28:59

Periwinkle I didn't say not to tackle this issue now I said that the OP cannot expect a quick fix, which is what she appears to be hoping for.

lljkk Sat 14-Sep-13 21:24:03

DC aren't perfectionist, but can have very low frustration thresholds. Maybe it's just a different way of same problem coming out.

I tell them that what they're learning is tough, it's supposed to be. If it was easy they wouldn't be in that class/group/lesson etc. They may not manage the first time but that's okay, that's why they are in class, because they need to learn and what they're learning isn't that easy. As long as they try the teacher will be happy (so will I). I'm less interested in when or how success happens.

Praising effort wouldn't really achieve anything with mine. They need to know it's normal to find it hard-going.

Periwinkle007 Sat 14-Sep-13 21:15:39

I do think it is good to tackle something like this though when they are young bisjo, how to do it is the problem but the sooner a child learns to see themselves as worthy and learns that making mistakes is ok then their lives will undoubtedly be more relaxed

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