So Here’s the Story …
My son had been exhibiting signs of perfectionism about his work, whether it was writing letters, building Legos, or drawing pictures. He would have angry outbursts of yelling and ripping up his paper if his letters weren’t perfect. If a Lego fell out of place, he would sit there determined to put it back properly or break the whole design if it wasn’t right. If he accidentally drew a letter backward, he would say, “This is scribble scrabble. This is not good,” and crumple up the paper. It was beginning to rule our lives because even though these activities were frustrating to him, that’s all he wanted to do with his free time. He asked me to draw the alphabet with him, especially when he got home from preschool. As the days wore on, I dreaded this time of day because not only were we all tired by 5 or 6 pm, it inevitably always led to anger, frustration, yelling and knocking over chairs, etc. I knew they were learning a new letter each week at school, and I suspected that this process had been deeply frustrating for him.
Instinctually, I wanted to help him practice. At the same time, this pattern was becoming exhausting and painful for everyone.
One day he got home from preschool and was angry and quiet. I asked him what was wrong, and he immediately sounded annoyed by my question, saying, “Nothing! Leave me alone.” I brought out his favorite stuffed dog and, in my best dog voice, asked, “Mommy, is he OK?” I said, “I don’t know, Fred, I’m trying to find out so we can help. Let’s give him a big slobbery doggy kiss.” Usually, when the stuffed dog kissed him, his walls lowered a bit, but this time, he just wandered off looking dejected. My attempt at play fell flat. So I tried something else.
A few minutes later, I asked him if he wanted to draw, and he said yes. I suspected this might be the source of the tension. He started drawing letters, and as soon as he made the tiniest mistake, he crumpled up the paper and threw it across the kitchen. This went on for a minute, and I just observed, staying close. I could see his frustration growing.
Connected Parenting in Action
Right before he crumpled the next one, I picked up the paper and folded it in half like a mouth and mimed the paper saying, in a very desperate voice, “Please don’t crumple me! I have YOUR special writing on me! I don’t want to go on the dirty floor!” Jokingly, my son grabbed the paper out of my hand and crumpled it with a sly grin, then threw it to the floor. That was my signal to keep going.
I picked up some of the crumpled balls off the ground and pretended the papers were saying, “Hey! Get us off the floor! We’re too special!” I tossed one of the crumpled balls at him, and it lightly hit him on the shoulder. He laughed hard.
Quickly, he ran all over the kitchen, picked up as many balls as he could hold, and ran to the other side of the couch. I picked up only one ball and hid behind the couch. I poked my head up, and as soon as I did, he threw a paper ball at me and hit me in the forehead. I fell down very dramatically, saying, “Oooh, you got me! OK, I’m gonna get you now!” I ran very fast and earnestly toward the paper balls on the ground but always let him get to them first as I fell awkwardly. He had an armful of balls, and I would have one or two. Every time, I acted simply baffled by our unequal ammo. “Wait a second! You have 10, and I have 1!” He chased and chased me around the sofa. He loved watching me cower ridiculously whenever he threw a ball.
We went on like this for about 15 minutes, playing “the cannonball game.” We both laughed and laughed. We both felt lighter, and our connection immediately felt strong.
Lightening his fear and the need to control through a physical, aggressive, but silly game where he could win worked wonders. It helped that our ammo (the paper) was the object of his frustration. He could not only be in control, but he could throw it and release the tension through laughter and roughhousing.
In the days that followed, he came home from school and immediately asked to play the “cannonball game.” It was such a hit that it became a fun way to connect after school and get out whatever tension had built up from the school day. It’s hard for me to know exactly what makes him frustrated during the day, but I realized I don’t always need to know that information to be able to help him. He can work it out through play and connection.
About a week later, he was working on his letters. He was lighter this time. He did crumple up one paper, immediately smiled, and said, “Another cannonball, Mom.” He then went on writing without an outburst.
I could see he was able to let go of some of his fear about not getting it right through laughter and taking on a powerful role.
This brought some joy and playfulness back into the experience of learning something hard.
The Science Behind the Story
- At the heart of perfectionism is deep fear of being no good, being unlovable, never getting it, being disapproved of, or being “defective” in some way. Underneath perfectionism is criticism, and underneath that is usually a feeling of powerlessness.
- We all experience these fears and feelings at some point as human beings, but we can help our children work through them and teach them tools to manage them so that their inner critic doesn’t dictate their thoughts and actions. Of course, we all want our children to work towards goals with vigor — but without self-annihilation. Fostering emotional intelligence means helping our children to be aware of their emotions, the impact they have, and tools for self-regulation.
- Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., states, “Play is one of the best ways to engage with children, pulling them out of emotional shutdown or misbehavior, to a place of connection and confidence.” He goes on to explain, “Most children gravitate automatically to play that helps them master big and little upsets of their lives, just as we adults like to talk to our friends about the aggravations in our own lives. When children seem to be struggling, adults can facilitate their recovery of confidence by playing with them.”
- Trying to be “perfect” is a coping mechanism to stay safe from the things listed above. But this coping mechanism also limits our children’s freedom to explore and their motivation to challenge themselves and have fun learning. It can look like shutting down, shyness, aggression, defiance, and avoidance/disinterest. It’s our job, when we see these behaviors, to look for the feelings that might be underneath and start there.
- As seen in this story, play can be a more powerful antidote than our words when it comes to shedding fear. This special kind of play, called Playlistening, coined by Hand in Hand Parenting, is where the adult takes the LESS powerful role, allowing the child to take control, “win,” and HAVE FUN, demonstrating their power through silliness.
- Roughhousing, wrestling, or any kind of rough-and-tumble play works to help your child shed fear. The child takes the lead while you try very hard to “get them.”
- Our attention and lightness bring safety to their nervous system. Laughter releases feel-good chemicals in the body. As you laugh together, safety is reinstated, fear is lessened, and confidence is ramped up.
- Dr. Anthony DeBenedet, author of The Art of Roughhousing, says, “It’s important to manage the level of stimulation by understanding how much your child wants and needs, and to keep things in that range.” In this story, Mom noticed what made the child laugh and adjusted the level of action, noise, and silliness accordingly. Follow the giggles, no matter how nonsensical they might be.
- Sometimes, this connection alone makes room for deeper feelings and tension to emerge with tears or a tantrum about how hard it all has been for them. That’s your cue to just listen and validate their experience. Sometimes, they’ve lightened enough load to try the task again. 💪🏼
Things to Try At Home
- Create a playful scenario with whatever the source of their tension is (the paper, Legos, the book they are trying to read, the pool) by making yourself or the object less powerful and silly — just follow the giggles to know you are on track. For more ideas on how to use play, particularly in power struggles, download my free guide.
- Body “struggles” sometimes need body solutions: learning how to write, learning to tie your shoes, learning a new sport, and learning how to swim could all benefit from rough-and-tumble play that allows children to exert their confidence and unique power over YOU — the safest, most loving person in their life.
- After playing, you might talk about what’s been holding them back and some tools they can try when they are at school or when you’re not around:
- Share a story about how you overcame something you were scared of when you were a kid or as an adult.
- Celebrate the small wins of progress just as you would the final result!
- Allow them to recognize and even name the inner critic that’s within them (and all of us) and how this part of them is just trying to protect — but sometimes takes it too far. Give your child permission to gently tell their inner critic to take a step back and lighten up because they are safe.
- Let them see you learning new skills, making mistakes, and how you process your mistakes with tenderness. There is no better way to help your child than to work on your own perfectionism and self-criticism. Most likely, you developed your own version of perfectionism to stay safe, accepted, and lovable in your home or school. Perhaps it kept you free of being shamed, blamed, or in the spotlight, and prevented other people from fighting. Or maybe it got you the praise and affection you so deeply desired. In all cases, your perfectionism was an attempt to keep you safe. Connecting these dots with your past, healing your early wounds, and learning new ways of working your patterns is critical to being able to lead your child down a different path…and more deeply enjoy the present moment of your own life.
- Share a story about how you overcame something you were scared of when you were a kid or as an adult.
Cohen, Lawrence J. 2002. Playful Parenting. Ballantine Books.
Debenedet, Anthony T, Lawrence J Cohen, and Carl Wiens. 2010. The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It. Philadelphia, Pa: Quirk Books.
Parenting, Hand in Hand. 2016. “What Is Hand in Hand Parenting’s Playlistening Tool?” Hand in Hand Parenting. August 18, 2016. https://www.handinhandparenting.org/2016/08/listen-launch-post-what-is-playlistening/.