What to Do About My Perfectionist Child?



“Parents should never want to teach us life; for they teach us their life.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke

I haven’t been able to write in weeks  My anxiety has been through the roof and my husband has been working insane hours so I was quite alone amidst the chaos of raising 3 middle schoolers.  I could barely keep a thought straight long enough to get them all to their respective activities on time and still had to look at my calendar three, four, five times a day even to keep it all straight.  But finally a lull has taken hold and the anxiety has abated significantly.  It is like the tide but on a completely random schedule.  It rises and rises and then ebbs.   Unfortunately, there is no timetable by which to plan my days.  I have to keep going regardless of how I feel.  It is simply exhausting sometimes.

Despite the ever -changing disposition of my moods over the last year or so, I have noticed a consistent change in my 12-year-old daughter’s personality.  She is becoming more of a perfectionist the older she gets.  Two years ago, we had a discussion about this because she melted down about getting a B on a test and to her it manifested as a failure.  I explained to her that neither her Dad nor I expected her to be perfect at anything.  She refused to us then and it’s only getting worse.

In some ways, I know how she feels.  I was the same way with my grades in school but mostly because it was the only way to get any kind of affection out of my parents.  I performed to get my needs met.  But my husband and I absolutely do not parent this way.  Even if I unconsciously had a tendency to go there, my conscious mind would not allow it.  I recognize all too well the damage it does..that withholding affection is destructive no matter what the case.  It is also a sign of parental insecurity, not of any failing on the child’s part.  And most of all, I refuse to repeat my own history.

So what is happening?  Is perfectionism an inherited trait?  Is there really such a thing as middle-child syndrome? How do I get through to her?  It is getting to the point that we cannot even reprimand her about not doing her chores because she throws a fit and will sulk in her room all evening.  She absolutely cannot tolerate criticism.  She is also becoming completely risk averse which, I have learned from several education experts, is quite typical of the perfectionist child.  They refuse to do anything at which they are not sure they will excel because they may fail and that is injurious to the ego.  But how do I help her?

For now, my own doctor has suggested I share with her some concerns I have about my own shortcomings in regards to a volunteer opportunity I’m attempting.  I’m in training to advocate for children in foster care and make sure they are being fairly and well represented in all aspects of their cases.  I am scared I won’t live up to the task and I will somehow fail to do enough for a needy child.  But I am doing it anyway.  I want to do it and will try and hopefully rise above my own fear of failing.  My doctor thinks sharing this story with my daughter will help her to understand the importance of stretching beyond her fears, so I’ll try to discuss it with her.  But she’s a “tween” and not so interested in my stories right now.  I pray she hears me.   I do not want her to end up like me…in a spiral of anxiety and of never feeling “good enough.”  There needs to be an end to this generational pain.