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Question:   My 15 year old daughter settles for nothing less than top grades.  She participates in every conceivable extracurricular activity and everything has to turn out perfectly.  She is exhausting herself. I am starting to get worried about her.   Do you have any suggestions?—Malka, Teaneck, NJ

Children who are perfectionists believe, consciously or unconsciously, that their personal worth is attached to their performance rather than their essence.    They are often very self-critical when they compare themselves to others and they therefore often feel little satisfaction, even after expending prodigious effort.    They are in an exhausting race to find their self esteem.    In a competitive society, perfectionism is a common problem among sensitive, high achieving individuals.

As parents, we can actually teach our children to have a positive self concept.  It is best to begin to focus on this vital parenting task from the very beginning and never really stop.  Don’t lose heart, though, even if your children are already a bit older, because it is never too late get started. It will just take longer to be successful when kids are past their most formative years.  To build self esteem, we must provide unconditional love and attention, very consciously separating how we may occasionally view our children’s negative choices from how we think of them as intrinsically valuable people.  They read us very well, and they learn about their worth by seeing themselves through our eyes.

Not uncommonly, children become perfectionists because they desire to please an insecure, demanding or critical parent.   For example, some anxious parents view any error as failure.  Some are very competitive and must win at any cost.   Still others want ‘more’ for their children than they themselves were able to attain in life. Regardless of the reason for requiring top performance, the child learns the essential lesson.   She is NOT okay the way she is.  She had better work harder if she is going to ‘deserve’ her parent’s approval.

So, does this mean that we cannot expect excellent effort from our children?    No.  We expect them to learn and grow up to utilize their potentials.  But, we simultaneously infuse them with the knowledge of their inherent precious worth and of our respect for their unique qualities.

So how can you help your daughter?   Teach her that when she was born, she was given a precious gift from Hashem Himself—her holy neshama (soul).  Her essence is not just wonderful, it is actually holy.  And absolutely nothing she will ever do can affect her essential holiness.  Remind her that Hashem created people and therefore, since all people have some challenges in addition to their strengths, they are being ‘perfectly’ human.  Hold her and tell her that she is plenty good enough just the way she is.  You love everything about her.

When you see her working a bit too hard, remind her to strive for excellence, not perfection.  Encourage her to set realistic goals and give it a good effort.   From now on, focus her, not so much on the endpoint, as the meaningful content of the task and her enjoyment in the process.  After all, the pleasure of a perfect outcome is momentary but the pleasure in a meaningful process lasts far longer.  Remind her that Hashem has put us here on earth to be m’sameach (joyful).  She is actually doing a mitzvah by enjoying what she does.

In addition, consider whether you and/or your spouse has a critical side that has been affecting the way your daughter has been viewing herself.  If this is so, you will be doing yourself and your family a tremendous favor if you were to seek out professional help to address the root causes for that negativity. And as a extra bonus for your efforts at self improvement, your daughter will learn a valuable lesson from your example:  As long as we live, we keep working on getting better and better.

To sum up, make sure that your daughter knows that she does not have to DO anything to be loved and appreciated.    Her accomplishments are her contributions to the world and they have definite merit.  But it is who she IS that you treasure and her essence is perfect now, just as it always has been and always will be.

©2009 Debbie Katz , JPARENT, LLC All rights reserved.
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