Help your daughter quiet her inner critic
By Sissy Goff
If there is one thing I’ve learned about girls in the 21 years I’ve been counseling them, it’s how profoundly hard they are on themselves.
An abundance of research basically says the same thing. It’s something you already know. When something goes wrong in a boy’s world, whom does he blame? Someone else (Moms, I’m afraid that someone is you, more often than not). When something goes wrong in a girl’s world, whom does she blame? You guessed it. Herself. All girls are critical of themselves. Some girls show it. Others become adept at being critical of others or looking like it doesn’t matter. But I can tell you from thousands of conversations with girls of all ages … it matters to them all.
Many of these self-critical girls become perfectionistic. Some parents notice the trend begin in middle school when girls start to track their own failures. Others begin in elementary school when the social hierarchy comes into play — or, as one girl referred to it in my office, “playground politics.” Other parents will tell me that their daughters were grunting to get things right before they even had words and furious with themselves before they understood what anger was. These girls are perfectionistic. And as they grow older, it often gets worse. They put more and more pressure on themselves — academically, athletically, artistically, even sometimes spiritually.
They are obsessively watching the rise and fall of their own particular rating systems, whether it’s grades, stats in sports, or likely more often the likes (or lack of them) on their Instagram photos. They are highly aware of how others view them and even more aware of how they fail in meeting their own unrealistic expectations.
You may know this girl. She cries or gets angry anytime you try to correct her. She pushes herself entirely too hard. You have to remind her that grades don’t matter to you as much as she seems to think they do. She hangs back from trying things she might not do well. Her room might be compulsively clean, or it might be a wreck because she’s spending so much energy trying to control all of the other areas of her life. She gets great responses from teachers on her behavior, but is a terror when she comes home from trying to perform all day long. She carries anxiety almost everywhere she goes. Basically, she’s exhausted. She is trying so hard and just cannot keep up with the excessive requirements she is putting on her own life.
What can you do when this is your daughter? How do you help her rest? How do you teach her to give herself grace? Accept her own failure? Receive your constructive feedback?
Perfectionism often gets worse over time. But I believe there is a great deal you can do as a parent to alleviate some of this powerful pressure.
- Check your own perfectionism. What kind of pressure are you putting on yourself? On your performance? On the way you look? What kind of comments is she hearing you make about yourself? A high school girl recently said to me that her mother talked about her own weight all of the time. “My mom is skinnier than I am.” All I can think when she says that is, If she feels that way about herself, what must she think about me?
- Emphasize doing your best rather than doing it right. Ask her how she felt about a particular ball game or report card. Does she feel like she did her best? If she is a perfectionist, she’ll likely be much harder on herself than you could ever be on her. Then you can step in with support rather than criticism.
- Give little ones a reward for trying. Don’t just reward their successes but their attempts as well. Celebrate an attempted goal rather than an accomplished one.
- Acknowledge your child’s strengths and her struggles. We often don’t bring those struggles up so they don’t feel bad about themselves. They know where they struggle. To say to her, “I know you’re not the best basketball player on the team, but you sure are amazing with your little brother,” or “I could never draw the way you do” helps her know that you see her realistically and that she is more than just her struggles.
- Fail in front of her often. Drop things in front of her. Mess up a project. Talk about when you fail. Share a story of something foolish you did at work. Tell her when you’ve hurt a friend’s feelings. You are your daughter’s hero. She needs to know that failure is a part of everyone’s life. It will help her to forgive herself. Emphasize the fact that we only realize we need Jesus to the degree we know what a sinner, mess, or failure we are. Help her develop her own awareness of her need for grace.
- Learn to laugh at yourself. Perfectionists take themselves very seriously. Is laughter a regular sound in your home? It is important for everyone to learn to laugh at themselves and simply enjoy each other. Make sure to spend time that is not centered around some type of teaching or lesson. Every child needs to be enjoyed just for the sake of enjoyment. When you enjoy your child, she believes she is more enjoyable as a person.
At our summer camp several years ago, Melissa Trevathan, our director and my friend, said two sentences I will never forget. She was talking about Jesus and said, “He doesn’t ask us to try harder. He just makes us new.” I’ll never forget these words because I’m a bit of a — actually a huge — perfectionist myself. And I’m desperate to be made new. His mercies are new every morning. Those mercies are around and inside of me because of the Lord’s great love. His compassions never fail. For me. For your perfectionistic daughter. For you. Help your daughter learn what it means to rest in the kind of love that Lamentations 3 is talking about. Learn to rest in it yourself. As you do, you will free your child to do the same. And as she does, she will gradually learn to stop basing her worth on her performance or her friends’ ratings and base it on the great love that our gracious Father has for her … and for you.
Sissy Goff is the director of child and adolescent counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville, Tenn., as well as the author of six books, including Raising Girls and Intentional Parenting. You can follow her blog for more parenting help at raisingboysandgirls.com.
This article originally appeared in ParentLife Magazine (January 2015) For more articles like this, subscribe to ParentLife.