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Wednesday Wisdom

Perilous Perfectionism

- Reflect -

The last two weeks have gone by in a blur of summer term school activity; leavers’ parties, balls, prize-givings and school discos. Exam season is over. People are tired, but also enjoying the reverie of being free to socialise in full again, particularly whilst the sun is shining. School reports will soon be landing on mats or in inboxes, signalling the close to the academic year. We will read about our children’s progress, take pride in their successes and learn more about the areas that they need to work on.

In recent weeks, I have been thinking about how children respond to this feedback on their annual progress. What’s the best way to encourage children to look forward to feedback of all kinds and to see it as a motivating springboard towards some new goals? How can we encourage them to be upbeat about the things they aren’t so great at; to see them as challenges, rather than failings?

There are many children in our society who feel what they perceive to be personal criticism very deeply, particularly those who are more perfectionistic. These are the children who might have gained 9s in everything at GCSE, but lose sleep over the 6 in one subject. They are the children who beat themselves up over a simple error in a test. There are actually three main kinds of perfectionism, which are succinctly explained in a great little video created by NACE (National Association for Able Children in Education) and York St John University. In simple terms, these are: expecting yourself to be perfect, thinking that other people expect you to be perfect, or expecting other people to be perfect. All are damaging.

Research shows that perfectionism is on the rise in young people, and that it can be a serious problem which contributes to a whole body of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, burnout and eating disorders. People high in perfectionism tend to have worse self-esteem, frequently compare themselves to others and are often extremely self-critical. 

Academic anxiety is commonplace among young people, but so too are anxieties around body image and appearance. For perfectionists, who might already be susceptible to the unfavourable opinions of others, such worries are frequently only reinforced by a culture that fosters unhelpful judgements. Whilst social media can be a force for good, when a pursuit of ‘likes’ and comparisons with the ‘perfect’ lives of influencers is merged with a perfectionist’s need for validation or their tendency to be overly self-critical, it is more likely to expose vulnerabilities and impact negatively on their wellbeing. 

When we consider this alongside other commonplace practices among teens, such as rating each other’s looks out of 10, or the popularity of ‘reality’ programmes, such as Love Island, which promote ranking others based on an initial visual impression, it’s unsurprising that some of our teens feel like they aren’t living up to their own or others’ unrealistically high standards.  

- Motivate -

So how can we help our children to navigate these pressures? Well, when it comes to appearance, we know that positive body image is hugely important to wellbeing. Problems tend to entrench during adolescence and poor body image is actually the biggest risk factor for an eating disorder. However, body image is modifiable, so there’s much that we can do to help.

As parents, we should strive to be proactive in building up our children’s resilience and encouraging them to enjoy the bodies they are in. Expressing gratitude for the ways that our bodies serve us can improve body image (Professor Charlotte Markey, 2020). If we encourage children to note down, or simply recognise, the things that they like about their bodies, we can help to counter pervasive messages about fixing and improving ourselves and help them to feel ‘good enough’. 

We also need to think hard about what we are modelling. If we gaze in the mirror with a look of horror, disgust or disgruntlement, we might be providing a template for negative self-talk. Comments about our wobbly thighs, wrinkles, or ‘dad bod’ won’t go unheard by small ears and might contribute to similar insecurities in both young children and teens. Keep thoughts like these to yourself and try (hard as it might feel) to consciously notice the bits that you do like. We want our children to be comfortable in their own skin, so we should try not to disparage our own! Over the coming weeks, why not see if you can actively use phrases that are more self-affirming, congratulatory and forgiving, and then see if you start to hear your child using them too?

When you talk about your child’s body, try to focus on its functionality – how strong, healthy or powerful they are – rather than only their appearance. Phrases like, “You looked so athletic when you were swimming today. Those strong muscles were really helping you to move quickly” or, “You’ve got so tall now. That will really help with netball”, will encourage children to value how their body enables them to achieve physical tasks, rather than simply for how they look, and will help to build physical resilience. Looking beyond their bodies, we should also all aim to recognise and acknowledge our children’s other skills and interests, and value their effort, determination, kindness or bravery, for example. 

If you do hear your child being overly self-critical about their appearance, it’s important not simply to dismiss their claims or reassure them that they are wrong. The research shows that a more effective tactic is to use calm, exploratory questions, prompting them to think about why they are saying these things and to search for the evidence that supports it; “Tell me more about why you think that?” “Where is the evidence for that?” “Do you think that is always true?” “What would you say to a friend who said that about themselves?” “What might be a different way of thinking about this?” 

Nudging them towards self-compassion can help to squash this mean inner bully, (or ‘gremlin’, as I like to think of it). Eventually, young people might be able to work out what helps them to ignore, or push aside, these thoughts as they arise, whether that’s doing a hobby they love, reading a good book, listening to some favourite music, thinking of a compliment that someone gave them, exercising, chatting to a friend or simply enjoying the natural world.

If you are aware that your child has low self-esteem, treat social media with some caution. A 2018 report from the Children’s Commissioner found that 40% of 8-12 year old girls report receiving negative feedback about images they have posted online and that just over half of 8-17 year old girls worry about how attractive they look in pictures. It’s important to establish a clear set of digital values in your home, which are followed by the whole family. Conversations about treating each other kindly, trying not to make comparisons with others, not seeking likes or external validation, and being critical consumers of the information and images we see online, are vital.

- Support -

When it comes to academic anxiety, recent research has shown that intellectually gifted students tend to display higher levels of perfectionism than non-gifted students, and that they often have lower levels of self-esteem, despite their academic achievements.

Work by NACE has found that teachers can play an ‘instrumental role in creating environments that are less perfectionistic’, and which focus instead on creativity, problem-solving and appropriate levels of challenge. 

They advise that perfectionistic thinking can be discouraged in the classroom by avoiding excessive concern over minor mistakes, giving criticism is constructive rather than harsh, eschewing public punishments or rewards and ensuring that expectations are appropriate. These are messages that we can all take into the home environment too.

It’s crucial that young people feel that they matter, and that this is not dependent on the grades that they achieve or the mistakes that they make. PhD student, Marianne Etherson, notes that learning environments can act as focal points which reinforce key messages to all pupils about their self-worth, regardless of what mark they were given in that recent assessment. NACE has produced a free resource pack for teachers on the subject of perfectionism. It is well worth checking out.

In family life, we can all seek to normalise mistakes and encourage our children to set challenging, but achievable, goals. Let’s strive to welcome mistakes in our homes as part of effective learning; an opportunity to try something else, figure things out and overcome challenges. Let’s show our children that we aren’t afraid to fail and share our flaws with them. By valuing effort and promoting compassion towards ourselves and others, we help to protect our children against a wider culture that can foster problematic perfectionism. 

This is my final Wednesday Wisdom before the summer break. Enjoy the holiday and I look forward to sharing my musings with you again later in the summer. 

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

If you are reading this Wednesday Wisdom as soon as it is released, and perfectionism is a subject that interests you, it’s not too late to join me today (July 6th) at 12.30pm for a live webinar with Rob Lightfoot from NACE. As always, Tooled Up parents can sign up free here

The long summer holiday is almost here (or has already begun for some) and it’s the perfect time to encourage children to try new experiences, get out of their comfort zone, have fun and build up their resilience. A quick reminder that the Tooled Up library isn’t going anywhere and is packed with holiday inspiration. Take a look at our list of summer activities for young people of all ages, our pick of the best Quirky Activities for Tweens and Teens, and our list of 100 sports to try! The library is also replete with other useful summer resources, including reading guides, holiday and festival packing lists, advice about safe swimming and tips on how to avoid the ‘summer slide’. 

Before you file away those school reports, we have the perfect activity to get children thinking about all that they’ve achieved throughout the year and nudge them to make some plans and goals for the summer. You can also learn more about normalising mistakes in family life and promoting positive body image (you might consider downloading our body gratitude activity).

Parents with teens might also like to encourage their children to use our 14 day Wellbeing Journal over the summer. It’s full of activities designed to nudge them to reflect on their experiences and achievements, and build resilience.

To read and view more content, follow me on my social media channels.

Have a great week.