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My Daughter Is a Perfectionist!

Many children struggle with perfectionism, whether they are adopted or raised by their biological parents.
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Dear Susan,

My daughter is a straight-A high school sophomore, insisting on staying up until midnight to finish her assignments. She keeps her room super neat and she folds her socks and underwear "just so" in her dresser. She can't seem to do anything less than 100%. I think she feels compelled to be perfect. She was adopted when she was 14 months old from China. I have always been open about her loss of her foster family (we write to them and visited them two years ago). One doesn't have to be adopted to want to control the environment, but that is certainly going on for her. I want to support her to be flexible in her work and in life.


Worried Mom

Thank you for your question. Reading between the lines, I can tell that you want very much for your daughter to not only excel in her talents, but to also enjoy her life.

Many children struggle with perfectionism, whether they are adopted or raised by their biological parents. While your daughter's background could be part of the picture, it needn't define who she is.

Here are some suggestions for helping your daughter:

• Address any physical and emotional issues that might fuel anxiety, which is often a bedfellow of perfectionism. Those who lean toward chronic worry attempt to manage their feelings by trying to control whatever aspects of their lives they can control. Ensure that she's getting adequate sleep, plenty of exercise, proper nutrition and that she regularly engages in a relaxing pastime that has no winners or losers, like cooking, hiking or listening to music. By supporting her physically and emotionally, she will be less vulnerable to the flood of anxious feelings that may fuel her perfectionistic tendencies.

• Embrace your own mistakes and imperfections in her presence. Children are profoundly influenced by how they observe us approaching life's ups and downs. Do you berate yourself for not making the traffic light? How do you handle criticism? Are you defensive, or are you able to say, "You know, I could have done that differently." By showing her what it looks, sounds and feels like to roll with life, or accept that you're not always at the top of your game, you will model for your daughter a more relaxed approach to life.

• If you believe that your daughter's control issues are related to her adoption, make sure she is allowed to express the full range of feelings she may carry from her loss of the foster family. Has she been permitted the chance to openly cry or be angry, or is she quickly told why she was placed with you? This is in no way meant to suggest she shouldn't have become your daughter, but it is important for children to have the chance to freely express what is in their hearts and grieve their losses. Bottled up feelings can contribute to controlling tendencies.

• Address black and white thinking. Many children who aim for perfection have a rigid good/bad, all or nothing approach to life. Encourage your daughter to explore what would happen if she did something imperfectly.

"Help me understand what would happen if your essay isn't the one that your teacher chooses to read to the class. What would that mean about you as a student? Would you be disappointed that the teacher hadn't praised you?" By imagining the thoughts and feelings that would accompany a less-than-perfect performance, you may help her discover that she would survive the discomfort.

• Encourage her to "break her rules" and breathe through the experience. "I understand that you're more comfortable when your socks and underwear are lined up just so. Can you help me understand what happens for you if they're out of order, just for a day?" Help her describe the sensations in her body -- tension, a knot in her stomach, sweaty palms -- when things are out of order. By helping her notice what she's experiencing without judging or trying to change it, she may be able to stretch outside of her comfort zone, a little at a time.

• Remind her of times she has been imperfect and happy. "Do you remember the time you got sick and couldn't memorize your lines for the play? You had a little cue card to help you along, and it worked out just fine. In fact, the crowd got a kick out of the way you exaggerated reading off the card. You thought it would be awful, but everyone enjoyed it and you ended up having a great time!"

Many people struggle with unrealistic standards. You're wise to look for ways to help your daughter develop skills for managing her perfectionistic tendencies. With the many pressures that come from living in a fast-paced world, she will be well served to learn skills that help her adapt and cope to life's inevitable challenges.

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Parent Coach Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.