I taught my daughter to be insecure and perfectionistic and to care a lot about what other people think of her.
I didn’t intend to teach her these things, of course, any more than my mother intended to teach them to me.
Sadly, we are in good company: Insecurity is a problem for most females in developed countries. As many as 7 in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with family and friends. (Source: Real Girls, Real Pressure: National Report on the State of Self-Esteem)
But moms can’t take all the blame. For one thing, there are plenty of other ways our children learn to be insecure, like the other kids at school, siblings and other family members, media, neighbors, social media, the whole wide web… anything that offers them a chance to compare themselves and find themselves lacking.
For another thing, teens are hard-wired to care about the opinions of their peers. In the cave-days, when adolescents were the ones who mated and bore the next generation, being ‘chosen’ was a matter of life and death, at least for their gene pool. Today’s environment offers many ways that this survival circuitry can be triggered; a teenager might feel like she’ll die if she isn’t invited to a party, even though she won’t.
We can’t change their wiring, but there are things we can do to lower the pressure some teens feel to gain approval in every way.
- Talk about it. Acknowledge the internal pressure we all feel to be accepted and liked and affirmed, as well as the external pressure to be pretty, smart, talented, accepted, promoted, etc. Then talk about how exhausting it is, and what you do to try and resist it. Sometimes just getting feelings into the open is a huge relief, and it helps teens know that their parents struggle with some of the same things they do. Be in it together.
- Teach your kids about their inner value, such as their character strengths. You can learn more about character strengths through VIA and in my booklet, “24 Ways to See the Best in Every Child.” Talk about how your own inner strengths help you focus on what’s good about yourself instead of your “weaknesses.”
- Create a negativity-free zone – or Safe Zone — within your family. Have zero tolerance for criticism and allow each family member to decide what does or doesn’t feel like criticism to them. Some people are just more sensitive than others. Authors Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt propose having a designated word (theirs is watermelon) that everyone can say if they feel put down or unsafe in any way. If that happens, start a conversation about it and respect whatever comes up.
- Don’t criticize yourself. Worrying about being thin, beautiful, handsome, rich or perfect in any other way teaches your children that they should worry about it too.
Last but not least, model the way you want your children to treat themselves. Be the kind of grown-up you want them to become one day.
Do you have any other ideas for preventing perfectionism in our children? Please share them below!