Q: My son sets impossible standards for himself and then gets upset when he can't meet them. I try to tell him that it's okay to make mistakes because that's how we learn, but he still gets so down on himself for "failing." I know how painful it is to be a perfectionist because I'm the same way. How can I help him lighten up?
A: Yes, perfectionism can be painful. And it can also be a gift. I suspect that you've achieved some amazing feats in your life because of your visionary idealism and your drive to improve upon whatever you can. No doubt your family has also been blessed with many gifts because of the kind of parent your inner drive has motivated you to become.
Implied in your question is that you aren't imposing these standards on him, but rather he's generating them himself. I'm glad to hear that! It's wonderful that he can draw deeply from the well of unconditional parental love and approval to build up his personal reserves.
Your son may be in the process of forming high internal standards. As he matures, these standards might stimulate excellence -- motivating him to achieve personal fulfillment and make valuable contributions to his world.
Of course it's still hard to see him suffer because he can't meet his own ideals. It's only natural to assume that what was painful for us might affect our kids the same way. However, I am betting you didn't have anyone in your life who was there for you the way you are there for him. He's resourced in a much different way because of that. He's probably quite a resilient guy.
My hunch is that these 'episodes' won't affect him as deeply as they may have affected you as a child. He may go into those 'dark' spaces, but then re-emerge again pretty quickly, without the scarring.
Before he can hear any suggestions or advice about lightening up on himself and that it's okay to make mistakes, he will probably need to hear a lot of empathy -- the kind of really deep understanding that makes no attempt to change his thinking but simply acknowledges how he feels in that moment. And this will be pretty easy, because you really DO understand.
For example, let's say he has to draw something for a school project, and he looks at it and says something about what a terrible artist he is. Instead of trying to reassure him or boost him up, I wonder what would happen if you just sat down next to him, maybe putting your hand on his shoulder if that feels right, and said something like, Sounds like you have a vision in your mind's eye of how you want that picture to look, and your hand just can't seem to make it turn out that way.
Then wait and see what happens. Keep giving empathy for as long as he has more to say. For example, if he says, I stink at art, Mom! you can say: I hear you honey. It sounds like you are really frustrated.
You may even go so far as to share some of your own experience: Gosh, I can't stand when I can't make something turn out like I want!!! I SO get that. Remember that one time when I was painting the garage, and I just couldn't get the color the way I wanted, and it was driving me crazy? Sometimes it's really hard to let something go when it doesn't look the way we think it should. You and me, well ... we just really know how we want something to be, and sometimes it can be hard for us to feel satisfied with anything else.
After he relaxes a bit, you might say, Hey, wanna hear some stuff I tell myself when I start feeling upset about this kind of thing? If he says yes, go ahead and share your mantra or affirmation or handy reminder phrase.
Then give him a hug, and perhaps invite him to help you with something else as a quick distraction: Hey, those dogs are getting noisy out there. Would you be willing to throw the ball around for them for a few minutes while I get dinner started, and then we can take them for a walk together?
By taking this approach -- providing empathy rather than solutions, normalizing his feelings, sharing advice about what works for you personally only after getting his consent, and keeping it light -- you may transform not only the way you see him, but also the way he sees himself. What once seemed perfectionistic, idealistic, and brutally hard on himself may become visionary, motivated and showing high levels of discernment.
You might enjoy the book Now Discover Your Strengths by Buckingham and Clifton. It's a business book, but I think it has a lot of relevance to parenting as well. I've found it very helpful for re-conceptualizing 'liabilities' into assets. http://www.amazon.com/Discover-Your-Strengths-Marcus-Buckingham/dp/0743201140
Your example is still far more powerful than any teaching or advice you can give, so don't underestimate that. If all you ever did was listen and pay attention to him in an understanding way, and could never give him any suggestions or tips again, that would be enough. Your acceptance of the moment and his feelings lays the pathway to self-acceptance that he will later follow on his own.
I hope this helps!
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