Q: When it comes to doing his schoolwork, every little mistake makes my son feel like a failure. How can I get him to relax?
A: A degree of perfectionism is not unusual at "an age when kids are old enough to sense what others expect of them," explains Michael Schwartzman, Ph.D., a New York City psychologist and author of The Anxious Parent. "Children ages 9 and 10 are concerned that what they are doing may not be considered 'good enough' by their parents, teachers, or peers."
While a little bit of such knowledge can spur a kid to new heights, too much perfectionism can undercut learning and achievement. "In order to learn," says Dr. Schwartzman, "a child must be willing to make mistakes. If your child isn't willing to do that, then it's time to step in."
You can start by saying something like "You're putting a lot of pressure on yourself to be perfect these days. I wonder why that is," or "What do you think might happen if you don't get a perfect grade on this paper?"
The more your child can talk about his fears, says Dr. Schwartzman, the more you can reassure him with statements like "People won't think you're a phony if you make a mistake" or "We'll love you no matter what your grades are." You can also remind him that mistakes have a value, too, since learning to correct them helps us to do a better job the next time around.
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