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Raising a Perfectionist? Here’s How to Help Them Through “Failures”

My daughter is an achiever, like me. Here's how I'm helping her process her feelings when things don't go as planned.

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I’m a father raising four daughters. Like most fathers, I don’t like to see my girls cry, or really in any kind of pain. But the truth is, when I avoid those moments or rush to solve their problems for them, I rob them of precious opportunities to grow. Case in point: yesterday afternoon after school the girls are at the table completing their homework. My two oldest attend a public charter school, and my eldest is in third grade, which means that for the first time she’s experiencing all the rigors of preparation for high stakes testing.

Now, in our home we don’t place much if any emphasis on test scores and grades. Neither of our parents did for us, and we figure we turned out fine. There’s a bit of oversimplification with our stories, but essentially, we found our way not by comparing ourselves to others, but by challenging ourselves to become our best. We do acknowledge, though, that for us, doing well in school opened doors and provided us with options, options that led to college, graduate school, and careers that have been fulfilling and lucrative. But the only pressure we put on the girls is to be leaders, young women of character and integrity who make good choices.

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The problem is, when you’re raising an achiever (which our oldest most certainly is), it doesn’t matter how little you pressure them: They’re going to put more pressure on themselves. I know the feeling from personal experience. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when yesterday Riles just simply broke down sobbing after completing one of her test prep activities: she scored a 40 percent. Mind you, this is an online testing platform that gauges her knowledge of math content through the end of third grade, much of which she has yet to be taught. She’s used to getting high marks, and when she doesn’t, she tries over and over again until she gets it. But we’ve been here before with her, and have watched her succumb to being overwhelmed with pressure.

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My wife came and knocked on my office door to get me where I was (surprise) getting a bit stressed about trying to solve a problem of my own. “I think you should talk to Riley,” she said. “She’s bent over her work crying and can’t seem to be consoled.” It makes sense that I’d be the one to talk to her since we share the same affliction — except that I don’t cry about it and truthfully, I’m just now learning to talk through my emotions. But the best gift that I’ve given myself (and them) has been learning how to process my own emotions so that I can sit with them as they process theirs.

So, I came to the kitchen, literally picked her up in my arms, and carried her into my office while she sat in my lap sobbing. When it seemed as if she was done, I asked her what she was feeling. That’s new for me. My initial instinct is to say, “This isn’t a big deal. Why are you crying about it?” 

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She was upset, she said, because she got a 40 percent on her test-prep exercise. She tries her best at math but doesn’t seem to get it. Ouch. Next instinct: I wanted to make the moment less about helping her process her emotions through this experience, and more about solving the problem. I became angry at the school for assigning such difficult work, angry at our hyper-testing society, I thought of pulling her out of this school and placing her in a school where she’d be less exposed to all this testing. But none of those things were most important in that moment. I had to focus.

What she needed was for me to listen as she talked through how she was feeling. And what I learned as I listened was that she had the skills to healthily process what she was experiencing. I asked follow-up questions, like “Why do you feel that way about math in particular?” I also asked her to tell me about how she feels about subjects that she likes.

After listening for a bit, I shared how I was experiencing a similar frustration myself with trying to solve a problem that I’m not that good at solving. She seemed to get the analogy. We both agreed that taking a deep breath and asking for help are OK. We also agreed that we don’t have to be the best at everything (a revolutionary idea for both of us).

Before we wrapped up our little office session, I took her face in my hands and reminded her that she’s more than her accomplishments. For an achiever, that’s a revolutionary idea, one that I hope keeps her grounded. I’m sure this will continue to be a work in progress, but I’m confident that the more we talk it out, the better she and I will become at processing our emotions in a healthy way. 

We can’t control outcomes for our child — we just have to hope that we’ve prepared them well for the challenges they inevitably confront. That day with Riley put this theme front and center for me in a few powerful ways. I realized that it can be good for my daughters to cry when they experience pain or failure. In the process of working through their emotions, they’ll become more resilient and emotionally mature for the next obstacle they face.

Sam Wakefield is a father of four daughters (that’s right) and is married to his college sweetheart, Samantha. When he’s not at home surrounded by black girl magic, he’s a leadership coach trying to change the world.