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Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Karen Wang

7 Ways To Help Your Child With Special Needs Overcome Perfectionism

A friend asked me, “How can I help a perfectionist whose physical skills or sensory issues limit his abilities to perform as he wishes?” Perfectionism is not a term usually associated with disabilities.  But it can be a major obstacle to learning new developmental skills.  It’s confusing and demoralizing to struggle at something while everyone else makes the same task look easy. Here are 7 ways to help your perfectionist conquer new territory.

1. Acknowledge the pain

Learning to coordinate muscles to walk and talk is a physically and emotionally painful process.  Validate those painful feelings and increase comfort whenever possible. Consider giving a massage in between exercises or playing favorite music.  Offer something to look forward to and add some humor to the experience.  Laughter is a natural anesthetic!

2. Start with easy tasks

Somehow large tasks seem less daunting when the easy parts are finished first. Earlier today, my older son began to cry when he realized how much homework he had.  He won’t settle for anything less than 100% complete and corrected assignments - a lofty goal for a person with his learning disabilities and memory impairments.  He couldn’t concentrate on the long math problems, so I switched him over to his social studies book, where he only had to write the answer to one question. When that was done, I opened his science notebook, and he answered the two assigned questions.  By then he had re-built his self-confidence and was ready to tackle the math.  He went to bed right on schedule with a big smile.

3. “Yard by yard is hard, inch by inch is a cinch”

Even the smallest steps move us forward to our goals.  Not every day is for pushing limits; some days require a gentler touch. Two types of simple, short exercises that help with physical therapy, occupational therapy and cognitive goals are Brain Gym and Bal-A-Vis-X.  Some of the Brain Gym exercises are similar to yoga poses, and most only take 1 or 2 minutes. The Bal-A-Vis-X exercises involve rhythmically bouncing or tossing bean bags and racquetballs between partners. Over time, these exercises do add up.  My older son struggled for years to learn how to jump rope and had given up many times - and then one day, he did it.

4. Treat anxiety

The Girl Who Never Makes MistakesAt its heart, perfectionism is the need to control our circumstances, which is caused by underlying anxiety. In the children’s book, The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, the main character Beatrice overcomes her fear of public embarrassment and realizes that she enjoys doing things imperfectly with her friends and little brother. It’s a wonderful story for children who are afraid to find out what would happen if they made a mistake or had an accident in public. Anxiety is treatable. Three highly effective methods for treating anxiety are:
  • Positive visualization exercises - get started with a children’s book like Maureen Garth’s Starbright.
  • Play therapy - read this Friendship Circle blog for ideas and resources.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy - the book Your Anxious Child by Dacey and Fiore outlines this method clearly and concisely.

5. Take breaks

The Perfectionists HandbookIn The Perfectionist’s Handbook, author Jeff Szymanski recommends frequent breaks as a way for perfectionists to increase productivity and reduce stress. I’ve noticed that breaks are most necessary when they seem most unattainable.  A brisk walk around the block, a warm bath or a cup of hot chocolate are good options when the going gets tough.

6. Scaffolding

At home, my children need extra support to build a new skill.  Once that skill is established, I reduce the amount of support that I offer, encouraging variation at the same time. For example, my younger son was a late talker who had difficulty forming several consonant sounds.  But he loved to sing along with the video game Beatles RockBand. He knew all the words to “Yellow Submarine,” and he had to ask for more songs.  Those requests for music expanded into longer conversational exchanges.  The music provided a framework for him to test his ability to speak. Months later, I noticed that he was avoiding fine motor activities.  But he expressed an interest in his older brother’s Lego kits.  At first, he only wanted to build the kits exactly as they were pictured on the box.  After constructing and de-constructing each kit several times, he began to improvise new constructions. While playing with Legos, he was developing fine motor coordination.  He soon found that he could write his name with no difficulty.  The Legos provided a framework for him to test his fine motor skills.

7. Self-talk

As soon as he was able to speak, my younger son started apologizing for every little mistake.  So I taught him how to give himself pep talks.  “I know you can do it.  Your body is strong.  Your mind thinks carefully.  You always try your best.” By the time he was 5 years old, I often overheard him saying to himself, “I can do it.  I know how.”  I explained that everyone makes mistakes, even parents and teachers.  The important thing to learn is how to fix our mistakes. I told him, “Instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ try saying, ‘I’m still learning.’”  That’s a good lesson for adults, too. Have any tips for overcoming perfectionism? Share them in the comments below.

WRITTEN ON November 14, 2014 BY:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"