Impatience, Perfectionism, Fear of Failure

In this episode: A parent describes her 6-year-old daughter as a perfectionist with no patience and a serious discomfort with feelings of failure. She says that all her well intentioned efforts to calm, comfort and coach only make things worse, so she wonders if Janet knows how she might help her daughter “face problems confidently on her own and foster a love of process.”

Transcript of “Impatience, Perfectionism, Fear of Failure”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I am responding to an email from a parent that feels her six-year-old is impatient and doesn’t trust herself. She seems to be a perfectionist. This mom is blaming herself for certain parenting missteps that she made when her daughter was younger, a toddler, and she’s wondering how to repair these missteps to help her daughter to find some confidence in herself.

Here’s the note I received:

“Hi Janet, I discovered your podcast when my older daughter was two and a half years and baby sister was on the way. Your methods and advice really helped us so much during that period, but as my daughter left toddlerhood, I kind of stopped listening. And inevitably, we parents developed some bad faxing habits. So now I have a highly gifted almost six-year-old with next to no patience and a serious discomfort with feelings of failure.

I know perfectionism is a common trait among the highly gifted, so this isn’t entirely unusual, but I know our efforts to calm, comfort and coach are making things worse. She screams, “I’ll never…! Help me! Leave me alone! Don’t look at me!” and round and round again. She genuinely seems not to trust herself and I feel our good intentions and probably a need to control are to blame. I’ve listened to you and read much of your writing on this problem but it seems geared toward the toddler ages. My question is, how can we fix our parenting missteps to help our bright girl face problems confidently on her own and foster a love of process?”

So I love that this parent wants to help her daughter find a love of process. I think that might be a little too much to ask. I mean, I don’t know how many of us, especially if we’re on the intense side, really love the process, but what we do ideally have is a tolerance for the process. We know that it will pass, we understand that we are safe, because we’ve experienced that it is okay to feel all those uncomfortable things. And it goes away. And at the end of that you usually accomplish something, or get closer to accomplishing something. Or maybe you don’t accomplish it that time, but you do another time.

So while I think that a love of process may be too much to ask, she can certainly help her daughter feel safer and more comfortable in the process. And as with all situations with children and all the feelings that they have, the key to their comfort and feeling like something is normal and okay and safe, is how we feel about it.

Children are always looking to us for guidance in a situation. Is the situation safe? Is it okay for me to feel what I’m feeling? Those messages come from our parents, and I’ve said this before, we can’t be comfortable as a child if our parents aren’t comfortable. That’s the first step. We need those leaders that we are looking up to to give us those messages that we are safe and it’s comfortable. They don’t do that by saying, “You’re safe, this is fine, it’s okay for you to feel like this,” they do it by actually believing that and showing us that, demonstrating it rather than telling us about it.

So the first thing that I would look at if I were working with this parent is what she’s feeling when her daughter is struggling in these situations. What’s coming up for her? What is she or the father, what are they afraid of? How are they perceiving this role in this situation? I know that a lot of us are under the impression as parents that our role is to help our child through, make it okay for them, comfort them as this mother says she’s doing, she said she’s coaching, that we’re taking this active role in something that really has to belong to our child. A process of achievement or accomplishment belongs to the person who’s doing it.

So they don’t need us to help them through. They need to own that. They need it to be theirs.

What a child does need, or what is helpful at least, is a parent who is supporting them to be in their struggle. Supporting them to be in those feelings that I think a lot of us have. I certainly have them when I’m trying to do something and it’s not easy and I just want to be able to do it. All of those feelings come up. This has to be normalized for a child, for any child, to be able to accept it and tolerate it. And maybe eventually love it, who knows? Some of these processes we can love, but some of them… we just have to know that they have a beginning, middle, and end. That we can handle them. We can go to all those dark places in ourselves.

I recently did a master class with family therapist Susan Stiffelman on helping our children navigate their emotions. What do we do as parents? How do we handle this? Susan and I were going to be able to do this in person, which was wonderful, and so I was going to her house. She lives about an hour away from me. And I was starting off in the car and just kind of checking to see if I had everything, but I was already on my way. I noticed I didn’t have my glasses, which I really need, or else I’d be doing the master class with sunglasses on, which I didn’t think would be too cool.

So I had to turn around and go back home and here I was, I had gotten myself out the door a little bit early, I was proud of myself for not putting myself into a tense situation where I was rushed. But now I’m struggling, looking for my glasses and, you know, when you’re stressed out and panicking, you tend not to see even what’s right in front of you. So I wasn’t very likely to find my glasses very easily in that state that I got myself in. So my daughter, who is 21 and home this summer, which is lovely, was helping me. She was looking all around and at one point she said, “Ah, I know you don’t really like these things anyway, you get tense,” and I said, “Yes, and I’m never doing this again!” I shouted it.

Did I mean it? Reasonably, deep down, thinking about it? No, but I was very uncomfortable and frustrated in this process of trying to get out the door and do this live class, to perform, in a sense.

So even as an adult, I mean, I may not be the most self-controlled adult there is, I don’t know, but I blew my top. And then, eventually, my daughter miraculously found the glasses for me. I’m always the one that finds things in our house, but not in that state I wasn’t going to. Thank goodness she was there. She was so sweet and wonderful and she was patient with me while I was losing my top. She didn’t comment, she didn’t say, “Come on, Mom. You don’t really mean that, stop.” She didn’t do any of that. Or, “Come on, come on, it’s okay, it’s okay, I’ll find this.” She just carried on finding it, she didn’t try to calm me down or scold me or any of those things. And she miraculously found them and there I was off and it all went fine.

I bring that up to demonstrate, yeah, processes aren’t fun and wonderful and it needs to be okay, especially for a child, to be able to express all the things that this girl is saying. “I’ll never…!” in my example, was that I’m never going to do this again.

“Help me!” So she’s saying, “Help me,” and that would be easy for us to take it as she needs us to rescue her right there and stop this and fix it for her, but it’s just a feeling. “Help me, I can’t, I’m drowning here in this process!”

So for these parents to normalize that for themselves, if she looks at them with that “help me,” just nodding their heads, saying, “Yeah, yeah, this is hard!” Or maybe not saying anything, but just allowing that feeling to have a life, that expression of her feelings. The “I’ll never,” to have its life out there, it’s safe to say those things.

“Leave me alone, don’t look at me.” That you could actually do. I wouldn’t leave her alone as in feel like you have to walk away or turn away, but maybe these parents are looking at her with an uncomfortable feeling in themselves. A feeling of pity for her or a frantic, What do we do to help this girl? We got to do something. That’s why it’s important to look at ourselves and to really consider what we’re afraid of there and what we’re not trusting. Because these challenges that children take on are almost always developmentally appropriate challenges. That’s why they are taking them on. They aren’t things our child should need us to make happen for them. We’ve got to explore in ourselves what’s making us uncomfortable.

So we can go to that first step of, I’m really okay with this messy, messy, yucky, screaming process, whatever it is that my child has. That’s her process, she’s an intense girl it sounds like. Highly gifted, intense, sensitive, all those things tend to go together. So yeah, she’s feeling everything to the hilt and she needs to feel this, too. And have that be okay with her parents, so that she learns from the bosses there. So that she learns through their example and their presence that it’s okay for her to go there. It’s okay for her to go to all these dark places, she will get out the other side. It really is, without being dragged out, without being pulled out. She can do this.

So the way the parent describes this, yeah, it sounds like just like that. She screams, “I’ll never, help me, leave me alone, don’t look at me,” and round and round again. So not taking her words literally, not seeing these as sensible comments that she’s making that reflect a real need in that moment. The need is to blast. The need is struggle.

And this mom says she genuinely seems not to trust herself. I don’t know if we can say that for sure, but she will certainly have more trust in herself when her parents trust her. Again, it has to come from us first. We trust her to feel uncomfortable, to go to these depths. That we see this as a healthy process, rather than something to rescue her from.

The wonderful thing about children is that they are extremely adaptable. Always changing and developing and moving through. They are still doing that at age six. So this little girl will adjust. She’ll change tracks right away. She won’t probably ever be somebody who just quietly does the process and they’re fine.

My son’s like that. It’s weird. He sits down, he writes an essay.  I don’t have that process, that’s for sure. No, not at all. Takes me hours and sometimes days to write what he sits down and writes in a matter of an hour. It’s crazy. So there are people like that, but this girl is not one of them. I’m not one of them, so I can relate. That’s okay.

The process… it’s tolerable, and we can remember that we got through it. It was really uncomfortable, but it becomes familiar to us. And that’s what we want for our children, for struggles, for suffering, for sadness, and frustration, and anger, to be normal, to feel safe, not fun, but safe.

She will shift. The challenge is for us to be courageous. To let our child to have all these uncomfortable feelings that this mother and her husband are going to want to fix so badly. But we love her too much to give her crutches that she doesn’t need, that only make her feel weaker. Again, this is our challenge more than our children’s.

Thank you so much for reaching out to me and I hope this helps.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

3 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I really needed to read this today. Thanks again, Janet for your wisdom. This parent is describing my 6 year old boy to a ‘T’. We home school and just started doing 1st grade work. I’m quickly noticing my boy is quite the perfectionist. If he doesn’t understand something right away he gets frustrated. Then I get irritated or frustrated with him for his behavior. It’s a bad cycle and I’m seeing now that I just need to accept his feelings and not try to “fix” them for him. New things are also very uncomfortable for him. Today we did some math where numbers were described in a slightly different way (to help with visualizing differently) and he was very uncomfortable about it. I kept telling him “It’s ok, you’ve got this. It’s just today that looks a bit different”, but this wasn’t helping him and I see now how I likely made it worse for him. I think a better thing for me to say would be “Yeah, this is different isn’t it?” This is just one example. I hope it’s not too late for him and that I haven’t caused too much “damage” to his ability to express his feelings and feel safe doing it. Ugh. Anyways, thanks for this post again.

  2. Hi Janet, thanks so much for addressing this topic of failure and frustration. I also have a 6 year old perfectionist! He also gets so mad in the struggle-e.g. he is having a hard time with monkey bars and will say “I’m so bad at this, I’ll never be able to do it.” It breaks my heart that he’s so tough on himself and I also get frustrated when he starts spiraling and can’t move on. If I don’t continue to verbally comfort him he seems to get more upset that “I don’t care.” Any other tips on how to help this age group – how to validate their feelings without getting stuck there, and how to help them let these big feelings pass? Thanks for all you do!

  3. avatar Erica Reed says:

    I need all the help I can get. My 5 year old son is a major perfectionist, something he has unfortunately inherited from me. I clearly remember joking as a kid that a 98% on a test was a 2% failure.
    I always thought of it as a joke until I see the same behavior in my son. 🙁 Unfortunately he is to the point that if he fails once, he utterly refuses to try again. If we are playing a board game and he loses, he refuses to ever play the game again. He simply shuts down and says he has no desire to try whatever it is again… I’m really scared about what’s going to happen when he gets to school and we can’t just shrug things off and say “okay, when you’re ready to try again let me know”…

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