“Is my kid being unduly hard on themselves?”
I hear this question a lot. I get calls from parents saying, “My kid is a perfectionist. When they lose a game, don’t get chosen for something, or somebody doesn’t like them, they go bonkers.”
Adolescence is tough enough; you’re not a baby, you’re not an adult…you’re just sort of in a swing state. And what makes the adolescent swing state painful is when young folks are inclined to be very hard on themselves after some frustration or disappointment. You’ve probably heard this at home: “I’ll never learn! I’m stupid! I can’t do anything right! No one likes me! I don’t have any friends! I’m such a loser! I hate myself! I wish I were dead!”
Doing poorly or not doing as well as they wanted triggers a belief that they deserve the self-inflicted bad treatment. And a lot of people take this feeling all the way through adulthood. They feel obligated to come down on themselves.
Where do they learn this?
Oh I don’t know, let me think…
…From their parents! Not always, but generally. They either learn it from a parent who’s blatantly role modeling that behavior, or just from a very critical parent. And then these young people spend most of their time hating themselves for any perceived failure, big or small. “The parental rule of ‘judge and punish’ carries on.” They beat themselves up out of habit, not because they want to motivate themselves, do better, or change.
So, a lot of the time kids learn self-critical behavior from having a parent or two parents who they could never please, who thought criticism was the best motivation, or who felt that expressing dissatisfaction was motivating. But parents are not always the culprits. Some kids get it in their heads that they just have to align themselves with an unreasonable set of expectations. Maybe it’s from sibling rivalry stuff, something happening at school, or just moon spots…who knows. In any case, parents really need to help them.
Here are a handful of triggers that cause kids to get down on themselves, and how you can motivate them to go in another direction:
* Losing a game or contest. In a kid’s head, they think, “I have to win or I’m a loser.” Oh my gosh! Nobody wins all the time. How could they? Also, by following that logic, if you win and someone else loses, that means they’re a loser. And of course, that’s not true. Probably the most important thing you can teach your kids is that winning and losing are exactly the same. Rudyard Kipling said that, except much more eloquently in the poem If. You should approach winning and losing the same way – calmly.
It took me years to learn this while playing pool. If I made a great shot, I’d be bouncing around the room. But if I missed a shot, I’d start muttering things to myself like, “I’ve been practicing this for three hours, and I’m still terrible,” “I’ll never learn this,” and “I suck at this game.” I couldn’t tolerate missing. And I know exactly where that reaction came from. It was parental. I didn’t make it up myself. I can really understand when people get into that mode because I personally had trouble getting out of it. However, now when I make a good shot, I just say, “That felt good, let’s try to create that feeling again.” And if I miss a shot, I think, “I didn’t go through my whole routine, or I adjusted my aim while I was taking the shot. Hopefully I’ll get another shot at this, and I’ll do better.”
You have to teach your kids that it’s best to expect you’re going to win some and lose some, just like the person on the other side of the game.
* Making a mistake. A kid thinks, “I have to get things right or something’s wrong with me.” Show your kids the problem with this mindset by role modeling the correct attitude. If you make a mistake while doing something, stop and say, “Aha! I think I know what I did wrong.” They’ll see you analyzing the error and remedying it for next time rather than going on an incomprehensible tirade about how mad you are at yourself.
* Failing to perform well. Many kids believe they have to be a success to avoid shame. However, in life, you can control your effort, but you can’t control the outcome. The result is not entirely up to you. For instance, things are handicapped or there are politics involved. Or people cheat, even on the highest levels, which can be seriously demoralizing because cheating seems to pay off when people get away with it.
So, you have to teach kids that everything in life is not on an even playing ground, and if they fail to do well, it’s not completely their fault. They can’t always control the outcome because there are too many other factors that have absolutely nothing to do with them.
* Getting in trouble. A kid thinks, “Since I did this wrong, I’m a bad person.” If you have a propensity for doing bad things, then yes, you probably are a bad person. However, kids do stupid things, they test limits, and they don’t think things through – their brains just aren’t ready to do that. They do dumb things but it’s not the same thing as being a bad kid, unless they do it continuously. So, it’s best to teach your kids that if they do something wrong, they should take responsibility, pay their dues, and then forgive themselves. Instruct them to move on and not repeat it.
* Getting criticized. A kid thinks, “Oh my gosh, everybody has to think well of me or I’m inadequate, inferior, or horrible.” That’s the point where you can remind them just like they’re not going to be a fan of everyone they know, certain people will not like them. And it’ll be for reasons that may have very little to do with them. It could be because they look like somebody from the other person’s past who upset him or her. The other person could be jealous of what they have, who they are, and what they’re like. It has nothing to do with your kid being a bad person.
* Being left out. This is one of the tougher ones. At some point your child will probably say something like this: “I wasn’t invited to the party,” or “I wasn’t asked to be on the team.” Tell them that just like we don’t want to be with every group, every group doesn’t necessarily want to be with us. Or as Groucho Marx put it, “I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member.”