Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Abby and Brian,
My daughter, whom I’ll call Laura, is in seventh grade and has always been a perfectionist, especially when it comes to her schoolwork. But everything has been far worse this past year, while she’s been in “hybrid” school (a combination of both remote and in person). She studies for hours on end for every test, and writes pages more than the teacher asks for. We’ve always been proud of her hard work, but my husband and I are growing worried. Of course we love that she thrives as a student, but now she can’t deal with anything less than perfect. She was inconsolable when she got a B on a math test recently. We told her not to worry and that she would do better next time. But we are at a total loss as to how to help. Is there anything we can do?
We are sorry to hear that Laura is putting so much pressure on herself. The pandemic has upended life for kids, and Laura, like many students, is trying to find solid ground amid the upheaval. That’s where her tendency to throw herself into her studies likely comes from, a reflection of her desire to control one of the few parts of her life over which she has any say.
Before beginning to help, consider not just that she is overstudying, but why she is so eager to get straight A’s in the first place. Many perfectionists like your daughter are extrinsically motivated by the consequences of their grades. Consequences can sometimes be tangible, such as when parents punish students for bad grades and reward them for good ones, but they are more typically psychological: Students want to please their teachers and parents, and maintain a good reputation among their friends.
So what drives Laura to spend so much time trying to perfect her work? Start by examining the signals she receives at home. Her academic success clearly makes you happy, and children are incredibly well attuned to their parents’ emotions. Laura may be internalizing the standards she believes that you, her parents, want her to achieve. Though we know that you want to help Laura ease up on herself, consider how Laura might interpret the fact that you have “always been proud of her hard work” and the remark that “she would do better next time.” We are teachers, not therapists, but we work with enough kids to know that the message they hear in phrases such as these is that their work isn’t cutting it as is.
Laura’s behavior reflects a mindset that whatever she achieves will never be good enough. So you are going to need to have an honest dialogue with Laura not only about her work habits, but also about her sense of self. Before you do, though, be clear about the message you want to send. And that message is one that all kids need to hear time and time again: You are enough, just as you are.
Let Laura talk first. Ask her how she’s feeling about school. If she brings up the stress of grades, you might first acknowledge that this is an incredibly difficult time, and then also find out what she’s enjoying learning about in class. Hear her out, but whatever she says, stay on message: You love her for who she is, and she doesn’t need to do any “better.”
Besides this one conversation, you should work to model a mindset of self-acceptance by openly discussing your own mistakes and normalizing imperfection. When parents are hard on themselves, kids pick up on the cues and often mirror the same behavior. Be open with her about the work project that didn’t come out as you’d hoped, or the call that went awry, or the fact that you sometimes struggle to get everything done. Then give Laura agency by asking her for advice on what you might do to remedy the situation. Many kids like Laura find it easier to muster compassion toward others than toward themselves. If she gives you some potential ways to work through mistakes, you can remind her of these later, when she needs her own advice.
Also, you might want to think about how to encourage Laura to expand her interests and identity beyond her grades so that they don’t feel like her metric of self-worth. Grades play an outsize role in many students’ lives, because they are one of the few objective standards against which they are regularly measured. Kids typically don’t receive “kindness ratings” or “respect scores,” so unless they are extraordinary athletes, many feel as though grades are the best or most accurate representation of who they are. But they are of course so much more than their schoolwork. Encourage Laura to pursue other interests and extracurricular activities and praise her for non-grade-based types of achievement: creative thought, taking intellectual risks, working hard to get to the root of an idea, or showing real excitement and curiosity when a movie, book, or recipe intrigues her.
Finally, consider having Laura speak with a school counselor or therapist. Having a professional help Laura work through her self-critical tendencies is crucial, especially during her formative adolescent years. You can assist her in some regards, but so much of being a teenager is learning how to be independent of your parents, and having your own space to grapple with complicated feelings and situations—all while knowing that your parents love you, no matter what.
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