January 29, 2015

When Perfectionism Threatens Progress

Long time readers might recall our frustrations over Sneak's perfectionism, manifesting as early as eighteen months when she refused to speak until her annunciation was up to her standards. Before then, I'd always assumed it was a learned trait, but recently Boo Bear has been showing more and more signs of the perfectionism monster stalking her. So, I've begun to wonder if there isn't some genetic component. Lord knows I've been fighting perfectionism as long as I can remember, as have the majority of the women in my family.

There's this perception that perfectionism is a motivating force that drives people forward through thick and thin until they get everything just right. It's not. At its root, perfectionism is a paralytic. Either the fear of failure keeps the person from ever starting in the first place, or they try, get something wrong or off, and then get so obsessed with that fact they never move forward or try again. "If I can't get it right, why should I even try?" is a common question asked by perfectionists.

Because of this, it can be a homeschooler's worst nightmare.

It can be a nightmare for any parent whose child has perfectionistic tendencies, but I have only experienced this as a student and a homeschooling parent.

The girls exhibit both reactions. Boo Bear is next to impossible to get going if she doesn't think she can get something right. Sneak plows on ahead, but one missed question or line drawn just a tad off sends her into a frenzy of panic and self-punishment.

Because of its nature, Boo Bear's reaction has been the easiest to deal with over the years. It's frustrating sometimes getting her to uncurl, get up off her bed, and set pencil to paper, but she's begun developing a growth mindset. Having a curriculum with three built in tries to master a lesson has helped with this. It's given her proof of what Hubby and I have been telling her about the hardest lessons to learn sticking with you longer and better than those that come easily.

Sneak is harder. Getting her to try isn't the problem. Unless it's food, she loves trying new things. However, her reaction to perceived failure is drastic and can escalate to attempts at self-harm in minutes.

Some days it's not so bad. She just whines and vibrates with frustration. Others, it snowballs. She'll start out with the whining about the first one or two mistakes. If she becomes distracted enough obsessing over those to start missing words she knows, the hateful self-talk begins. That brings tears within moments, and it moves to clawing at the tear marks, smacking herself about the face and head, and pulling at her hair from there unless I keep ahold of her hands while trying to calm her down. Once the tears stop, and Sneak stops berating herself enough to listen, we go through yet another talk about how mistakes can help us learn.

She's still skeptical. The idea that getting an answer wrong or having to try different ways to figure something out can be a good thing seems foreign to her. She has a memory like a steel trap, picks up information with breathtaking speed, and a drive to excel like no child I've ever seen. So much has come easily to her, that she doesn't know how to react when something doesn't. The fact what's giving her trouble is technically two grade levels above where she is overall doesn't register. Everything before has been easy, so this should be easy too.

I feel like I should have more of a clue about how to deal with this. Throughout my life, I've exhibited both reactions to one degree or another. I'm still fighting the urge to slap myself, bang my head into a wall, or listen to the procrastination demon. How can I teach the girls how to deal if it's still causing me so many problems?

All I know to do is to keep on with what I'm doing. I try to give them an example of getting something wrong, but just calmly going back and fixing it or trying again instead of letting it stop me. When they have trouble getting started, explain that they'll never know what they can do until they try. When they have a melt down because they shot for the moon and only hit orbit, I calm them down and explain how they can learn from what went wrong and do better on their next try.

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