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Parent hopes kid won't be perfectionist

| Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 11:32 a.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Last fall, you had a column about a high school perfectionist who could have been me. I'm now in my 30s and long since healed, thanks to great friends, an amazing therapist and a lot of time. But I'm afraid my daughter will go through what I went through. I can remember feeling guilty about letting people down when I was a toddler (although high school is where the pressure compounded into an eating disorder).

As a parent, how do you see that and offer help ... preferably long before it reaches such a crisis point? How do I make sure my kids know they are great even when they aren't perfect?

— Healed Perfectionist

A big part of it is to praise them for things they control, like hard work, versus their gifts (looks, talent, intellect). The opening chapter of “NurtureShock” (Bronson/Merryman) covers this nicely.

Kids need age-appropriate responsibilities, so they derive self-worth through contributing, as opposed to winning or losing.

And because perfectionist tendencies are so deeply rooted in feelings and the validity thereof, also try “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” (Faber/Mazlish).

Sorry to kick you to longer discourses on the topic, but raising kids to accept their flaws and feel comfortable sharing uncomfortable truths is not a column-size answer. It's a style of communication oriented toward validating feelings without compromising toughness.

Re: Perfectionists:

Now in my 30s, I realize quite a few of my problems with self-esteem and relationships stem from my parents' not only being difficult to please, but from their reluctance to let my sister and me express a range of emotions. An adolescent might in anger tell (shout, really) you she hates you, but that is not a punishable offense. A kid that age typically doesn't know how to express emotions — particularly the negative ones — without offending everyone around them. The parent getting angry about that just teaches children to suppress/hide emotion.

— Anonymous

Agreed, thanks. Anger, criticism, ridicule, pegging affection to achievement — all of these can create a climate where failure doesn't feel like an option.

Re: Perfectionists:

Often, kids who grow up in chaos try to find ways to regain control over their lives through perfectionism. As someone who suffered from eating disorders, I used food as control when everything was falling apart around me. I could control how much food I put in my body. So I did that.

— Anonymous 2

Another useful angle, thanks.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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