Q. My daughter freezes when she is asked a question on the spot or during exams because she is fearful of being wrong, not knowing the answers or not being able to complete the entire tests. What advice should I give her to help her overcome this fear?
A. Of course you want to help her deal with her fears. Most parents, I find, live by the myth that you can help your child by telling them what you have learned as more experienced human. Makes sense. You want to tell her something that will make her see the light and stop being fearful of getting it wrong. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Advice rarely helps unsolicited.
Your daughter was likely born with sensitivities for self-awareness, a desire for approval, as well as strong capabilities. This can underscore any ideas she has of how important those capabilities are to gain the approval she wants.
As parents, most of us are unaware of how our expectations of our children effect their behavior. Of course, we want our children to do their best, but often inadvertently we send messages that we expect their best all the time. “How many times have I told you?” can send a message that “You should know better,” “Something is wrong with you,” and “Why don’t you understand?” to a sensitive child who comes to fear she isn’t getting it right.
What I have noticed is that the more parents get involved with everything their child is doing, from how they conduct their friendships, to when, how much and how well their homework is done, the more perfectionistic and fearful children become. Actually, the more advice you give, the more likely it is that your daughter will fear she is not getting it right. My advice is to do less, not more.
Don’t think about advice. Think more about empathy. Any child fears being called on and getting it wrong. The question is how debilitating that fear is. Can she deal with it and take the risk, or does it keep her from ever raising her hand? And what child goes into a test feeling confident of getting everything right?
Think about normalizing these fears for her. The Of Course mantra helps. “Of course, you’re going to feel afraid of answering a question on the spot. Who wants that? I sure never did. And boy, did I hate tests. All my friends did, too.” I do not in any way mean for you to diminish her fears—just the opposite.
When you worry, she learns that her fear is something to be worried about. It also means that you are making her problem your problem. Then she has your upset, as well as her own, to deal with. And normal fear can turn to anxiety.
Believe me, I know how hard it is to be neutral, but that is what we must all strive for when confronting our children’s problems. They need to solve them, not you. And they need you to be their sounding board, hearing and accepting their emotions no matter how huge, rather than trying to calm them down or not have them at all.
Find ways to her know you get it:
- Use the Of Course mantra
- Share your experiences of what you had to overcome so she knows you understand. But don’t tell her that is what she should do.
- Ask her if she thinks any of her friends feel the same way. If she doesn’t share her fears with her friends, assure her they probably don’t either.
- Talk about worst-case scenario. What’s the worst thing she can imagine happening? How would she feel about it? What does she think would happen then? What could she do about it? Make sure she answers these questions rather than you telling her what you would do.
- If she is truly stuck, ask her if she would like a suggestion. Then tell her what you might do but remind her that’s you, not her.
Good News/Bad News
Sometime when she’s expressing worry, let her know there is good news and bad news about her worry and fear. The good news is that she will always want to achieve and do well. She will never settle for mediocre. She always wants to do well.
The bad news is that these high expectations of herself mean that worry and fear will hang around if she doesn’t think she is doing well enough. So therefore, her work (everyone has work to do) is going to be giving herself a break, letting herself know that perfect is not a goal, and relaxing and letting go will help her more than hurt her.
Perfectionism is based on the fear of not being enough, not getting it right, of others finding out you are a failure. Anxiety happens when the fear of not getting it right becomes debilitating and interferes with normal functioning. Good boundaries, acknowledging and normalizing the fears can help.
Examine your parenting. Have you or your spouse come to expect her to do what she is told because she can? How angry or upset do you get when she behaves in a way you don’t like? Do you take away privileges? If so, stop that and switch to talking it through with problem solving. Do you always expect her to do what she is capable of? How often are you at your peek capability? If the answer is not that often, why do you expect it of her? How do you deal with making mistakes? Show her.
When perfectionist tendencies appear, look to your expectations of your child. Let them be kids, expect “naughtiness,” know that a child’s job is to get what she wants when she wants it. Normalize fears and worries. Do not try to fix her problems or think it is your job to take them away. Give them time to make mistakes without jumping in to save them. And make sure their childhoods are full of play.