My 7 year old daughter’s class came home each day with a paper filled with smiley faces that were color coded for how the child behaved in class. Blue meant everything was great, followed by a struggling yellow, and a “we have a problem” red. My daughter only ever had blue faces. While driving home she asked “mom would you still love me if I got a yellow face?” As sad as it was to hear this question, I was glad she finally asked. “I want you to get a yellow face” I replied. Her jaw dropped. I went on to explain that while I appreciate her efforts to follow rules and “be good” I also wanted her to learn that it is okay to make mistakes.
From the outside, people struggling with high functioning anxiety often look like confident, poised, successful individuals. While their academic or professional achievements are hard earned, it likely comes at a great cost to their overall wellbeing. For many, anxiety is rooted in maintaining the appearance of perfection. The goal of this anxiety is to hide blemishes, vulnerability and anything that would signal that things are not always perfect.
Consider with me how anxiety contributes to lying behaviors in adolescents. While some teens lie to “look cool”, or avoid a consequence of their misbehavior, others lie because they catastrophize not being perfect. Maybe they failed their first test, are embarrassed to say they do not know the answer or have linked their identify to success. The role of perfectionistic anxiety is to tell the world, “nothing to see here folks, move along. . . everything is fine; better than fine!”
So how do we help encourage positive behaviors in our daughters and allow for failures?
- Decrease the firmness: Perfectionistic people tend to be extra sensitive to direction and correction. While other teens may need firm instructions, perfectionist children often comply quickly and promptly to instructions given in a neutral manner. Decrease the firmness in your messaging if your daughter fits in this category.
- Celebrate learning from mistakes. Point out the positive when your daughter recovers from failure. Celebrate any resilience. Say things like “I noticed you didn’t let that stop you. You kept trying and came up with an even better outcome.” “Great job not giving up when things don’t always work out well.” “It’s better to be an honest person than a perfect person.”
- Be an example of recovering from mistakes: Your daughter can learn about how to admit and talk about weaknesses from you. Being able to talk in an age appropriate manner about your own shortcomings, and how you have grown, including specific mistakes, allows her permission to talk about her personal failures as well.
- Do not overreact to small mistakes: If you ask your daughter if she completed a chore she may have just forgotten, do not respond with a lecture or consequence. Help her acknowledge by saying “oops” and allowing her to fix what she missed without attaching too much value to a simple error.
- Do something together that you are both bad at and have fun doing it. Let her see that the value of an activity isn’t in her skill, but rather in her approach and bravery to try