Helping a kid deal with losing...
May 23, 2008 8:25 AM   Subscribe

What to do (if anything) about a kid (Kindergarten) who cannot deal with failure/losing?

Right, so school 'Spring' concert last night, each grade stands up front as a group and sings 3-4 simple songs. Three songs in, I can see our daughter forget some of the words to a song, look a little nervous, burst into tears, and walk off during the song. She's inconsolable, wouldn't sit with her class ("Embarrassed"), wouldn't rejoin her class for the whole school sing at the end, nothing.

Not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Our parent-teacher meetings have been glowing - great kid, good worker, friendly, but always with the 'She will avoid doing something if she thinks she'll get it wrong'. We've run into it at home - she won't guess at things, won't try new games without an example or demonstration, that sort of thing. Once you do that, she's a-ok, but she'll never attack it on her own.

We don't punish mistakes, we're very supportive, and she's certainly seen us make our share of mistakes. I play sports and she's seen my softball team get whipped regularly. :) Hasn't seemed to help though. Her response is avoidance and tears, not anger or lashing out or anything.

Okay, crux of the issue: The wife and I got into a (private - after the kid had gone to bed) fight last night over what to do - the wife wants "Professional Help" and I wanted to do nothing - she's six.

The rub is that this is my daughter has picked up a miniature version of my wife's personality, pretty much since birth. My wife is almost exactly like this - she won't play on our co-ed softball team because she's "no good", I had to play with a neighbor's wife during the neighborhood Best Ball golf game because she "doesn't know how to golf", etc., etc. Neither my wife nor my daughter will accept the rationale that "it's only for fun and no one cares."

Apparently this has caused my wife much pain during her life - missing out on things, stress, and so on, and she wants to try and help our daughter avoid the same problems. The problem I have is that I am mystified by these actions. The solution (to me) with not knowing how to play softball is... to play softball. Same with golf. And singing. And life.

So, Mefi, have you any advice? Does my six year old need some sort of professional help? Is there some way we can help her deal with this on our own? My guidance of "Just Do It" isn't working - help!
posted by unixrat to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Better to get the help now whether or not it is needed than to let it go and find out later you should have nipped a problem in the bud.

Ask your pediatrician for a recommendation.

Please remember that if your child gets this sort of rep amongst her peers, it WILL stick and chances are they will NOT let her forget it even if she does outgrow the behavior.

Those of us who had these sorts of issues when young remember just how bad it can get for a kid. Please don't let that happen to yours.
posted by konolia at 8:32 AM on May 23, 2008

Sounds like they both struggle with being perfectionists. It's difficult for someone who doesn't labor under this burden to understand how incredibly frustrating and limiting it can be. Having your daughter meet with a therapist doesn't in any way label her or mark her negatively and it sounds like doing so would ease your wife's concerns quite a bit.
posted by jamaro at 8:36 AM on May 23, 2008

I was exactly like your daughter, only it continued well into my late 20s (and if I'm honest, I'm still a lot like that). I sure wish someone had nipped it in the bud when I was six. I'm a perfectionist and I've avoided a lot of things in my life because if I can't do it perfectly, why bother? I was a whiz kid, straight As, etc., and the praise perversely made me terrified of others' expectations, so I consciously reduced their expectations as a teenager by not doing my homework and almost not graduating high school. Unfortunately, I still had the same high expectations of myself - knowing I had so much "potential" - and it led to procrastination, severe depression, blah blah blah... I don't have a crystal ball for your daughter, but you really want to avoid this at all costs.
posted by desjardins at 8:50 AM on May 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

Praise process not outcomes, praise effort not accomplishment. My daughter is bright and also has tendencies to perfection. I try to encourage her to face her fears and when she does, review with her how it wasn't such a big deal after all and she was able to do it, and she had the courage to do it.
posted by idb at 8:56 AM on May 23, 2008 [4 favorites]

I can't find it now, unfortunately, but there was an article in the Washington Post recently that urged parents to praise their kids' efforts, rather than their innate smarts. Like, how hard she works on something, rather than how clever she is. Research has been found that bright kids praised for brightness were coming all to pieces if/when they failed.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:57 AM on May 23, 2008

A few sessions with a professional can't hurt. Someone who is skilled in knowing exactly how to relate ideas to your child, an authority that is not the parents, can perhaps give a different perspective to your kid. It is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and it is imperative to also let your child know at such a young age that asking for help is always an option and nothing to be scared of.

From what you can do on your end, encourage her to try new things based on how fun they look, and make games about fun rather than about winning!
posted by explosion at 8:58 AM on May 23, 2008

Have you taken her to play golf with you? I always felt like the reason I am able to cope with failure is because I played so many sports as a kid and learned not only that failure happens but often there's no consequences to failing. Take her with you to a pitch and putt golf course or play other sports with her.
posted by vito90 at 9:03 AM on May 23, 2008

you're treating the wrong person. your wife is the one that needs help--she should get the counseling. as part of that process, she'll begin to realize why she is that way, and how she's passing it on to your daughter. once that happens, she'll set a better example for your daughter.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 9:04 AM on May 23, 2008 [8 favorites]

I think it might get down to _why_ we do things. If it's to accomplish, or to impress others, then it _doesn't_ make sense to waste time on uncertain outcomes (at least in a narrow kidlike view, a view I share on occasion, I must admit). This gets to fundamental philosophical why-are-we-here questions, questions that are tangled up with the values that she's absorbing from you guys and the world around her.
posted by amtho at 9:06 AM on May 23, 2008

I am a lot like your wife and daughter. One book that helped me immensely was Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dwecker.
The gist of it is that some people have a 'fixed' mindset. They think that their talents, skills and intelligence are set, while others have a 'growth' mindset, and see everything as an opportunity for learning and growth.

Parts of the book talk about how you can speak to your children to encourage the growth mindset.
posted by mumbleitaliano at 9:07 AM on May 23, 2008 [4 favorites]

At first I would have said to let it ride; our son was like that. But considering it's a family trait coming from you wife, it might not be the worst idea to see a professional. In my son's case, we let him work within his comfort zone and eventualy he worked his way through it (mostly). He's a junior in high school, still a little cautious, but not nearly as afraid to try new things (and occasionally fail) as he once was.
posted by Doohickie at 9:08 AM on May 23, 2008

Your wife needs to model some better behavior. Sending your child to a therapist may be a good idea but will not help much if her mother continues to verbalize that she is incompetent, inferior, and not "good enough". This is exactly what she is doing and your daughter is copying that behavior.

Your wife is concerned about external approval. I'm not judging. I was concerned about external approval, rather than what felt right internally, for a long, long time. Your wife cares more of making a fool of herself, or what other people will think of her, if she isn't perfect. Your daughter is doing the same.

You and your wife have the best intentions and it's difficult to change behavior. Your wife should make a conscientious decision to start modeling better behavior. She needs to take risks without caring what others think. It might be a very good idea for you to have a conversation about situations when the arise. Mommy won't play softball today because she thinks she can't play. Mommy can play but sometimes she is afraid to try. I want you to know that it's never wrong to try. It's always best to try your best and have fun. Daddy has lost every game and me and my buddies still have a great time. We're getting better and next time we might win, but we might not and that's OK.

Mom needs to have fun and enjoy her family and show her daughter that it's OK to screw up. If mom is willing to try she could:

"Ha! That golf ball went straight into the woods. I hope I didn't bonk a squirrel's head!" Instead of, "See! I told you I couldn't play!"

"My shot wasn't as good as daddy's, but that's OK. I'm proud that I kept it on the green! I'm getting better at this!" Instead of, "I really stink at golf. I'll never be good."

Try to keep the self-deprecating to a minimum at all times. It sends messages to our children that we care too much of what others think and that nobody will love us unless we are perfect.

I'm not an expert in the least, but sending the kid to a therapist might be a bad idea if mom wont' try to change. It could send a message to the kid that, "You're not right. We need to fix you." If the kid goes to therapy the mom should definitely go as well.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:08 AM on May 23, 2008 [9 favorites]

While I don't have any experience with therapy, treatment or how to approach helping a child in this situation, I will say that as a 30-something who grew up with similar issues, I think it would have had an immensely positive impact on my life if I had learned how to cope with this personality trait early on. Do something.
posted by ellenaim at 9:16 AM on May 23, 2008

Some good ideas in here What to do when good enough isn't good enough Might be a good place to start.

In the past my spouse and I told of all the mistakes we made in a day, lost my keys, broke a glass, called someone the wrong name. This seemed to help the boy to realize that perfection is not always attainable. Everyone makes mistakes. Seemed to help.
posted by vidarling at 9:21 AM on May 23, 2008

This isn't going to help solve your problem, but we wrestle with some of the same tendencies in our family, and we've made a mantra out of this quote by G. K. Chesterton: "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
posted by keith0718 at 9:24 AM on May 23, 2008

Carol Dweck wrote Mindset, which talks about their study that identified kids who prize process and those that perform for results only. What they found is that kids that get praised for outcome shy away from tasks that are hard (because they don't want to fail), and those that are praised for process *like* hard tasks because they are a challenge. I don't think the book is a how-to necessarily, but might be some good food for thought. In my opinion, identifying and trying to find ways to change the pattern is a good place to start, then move on to a therapist if you don't see improvment after 6 months or so.
posted by dreamphone at 9:31 AM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

If your daughter has a mini-personality of your wife...and you think your WIFE has some issues...why NOT go to professional help.

You and your wife should go (not the daughter). If your wife recognizes a problem within herself, and tries to change it...that should AUTOMATICALLY affect your daughter as well.

Don't deal with the symptoms...get to the root of the problem.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:39 AM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

First off, it's not just about overt praise. If your daughter can see on your face that you enjoy success (hers or your own) more than the adventure of trying something new, she'll pick up the idea that success is a priority.

Second off, it may not just be about your wife's behavior. Obviously, I don't know how you act around your family, but there's a pattern I've seen a lot of families play out, mine included, and I wonder if you might be falling into it.

If your daughter sees you giving your wife extra praise ("Don't worry! You did great!"), attention ("Come on, just try it once?") or affection ("It's okay, honey. Here, gimme a hug.") when she's freaked out about small failure, then you're teaching your daughter a lesson: perfectionists get more love. If you give your daughter herself extra praise, attention or affection under the same circumstances, you're teaching her the same lesson.

The answer isn't to quit consoling your wife and your daughter, of course. They need hugs when they're sad. But they also need hugs when they're being brave, or when they're happy, or because it's Tuesday, or whatever. You may need to find occasions other than thrilling success or abject, sobbing failure to show them that you're proud of them.

I'm projecting here. Like I said, you could have been describing my own family — who, for what it's worth, are my favorite people in the world. The perfectionism I picked up (from my wonderful perfectionist mom, with my adventurous dad's loving and well-meaning help) is a bit of a hassle, but I love them to pieces anyway. So please don't take this as an attack — just as something to think about, from someone who's been there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:41 AM on May 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I should have noted with that mefi link, that it was easy to find because it's the 7th-most-favorited post of all time on MetaFilter. Take this as two lessons: 1) Perfectionism is a common problem, especially among people who are used to succeeding, and 2) This is a problem that follows many people into adulthood, rather than disappearing on its own. I think you'd be wise to try to help your daughter (and your wife!) get beyond these feelings, because people don't seem to "grow out of it" very well.
posted by vytae at 9:44 AM on May 23, 2008

I was the same child you are describing. Now I'm 40 and have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (not the same as OCD, and previously on MeFi). My doc, a neuropsychiatrist, says it's likely biologically-based and thus we work on cognitive-behavioral approaches. The earlier your daughter is exposed to cognitive-behavioral strategies, the better she'll be able to cope as she gets older.

I agree with everyone who's recommended professional consultation for both your wife and daughter, but I would NOT recommend family therapy at this point. If your wife is a perfectionist to the level you describe, she may need to be perfect in front of the therapist, which would model precisely the behavior you're trying to change in your daughter.

My heart goes out to your little girl, and to your wife. One of the hardest things for me to realize is how much experience I've lost because I was afraid to learn in public.
posted by catlet at 9:55 AM on May 23, 2008

I was thinking about exactly this kind of thing in my own childhood the other day. I wouldn't call myself a perfectionist, not at that age or at this one, but I had a tendency to mentally classify things as what I could do and what I could not do. I was a tiny Jedi: there was no try. Things either came naturally to me or they didn't; if they didn't, I just assumed I was physically incapable of doing them.

As a result, I missed out on a whole lot of opportunities, and I cemented a lot my identity at the age of six and to this day have to break down some serious misconceptions about myself. Though I'm far less afraid of messing up than I was as a child, I still take my failures far too personally: I can freak out if the work I do at my job doesn't pass QA at 100%, or if I'm 200 calories above my self-imposed daily intake, or if people disagree with my Ask Mefi answers. It's a fun life.

Anyway, here's what I was thinking about: as a kid, I did a lot of crafts. Being a kid with tiny clumsy kid hands, I sucked at a lot of them. They never looked like the image on the front of the craft-kit box, which I assumed was created by the clean pretty-kid model grinning vacantly at her perfect pottery-wheel vase. I worked and worked at that cheap crap-ass pottery wheel and ended up, of course, with wet blobs of cracked gray crud.

I always assumed my failures at these things were just because I hopelessly sucked. It didn't occur to me that it was par for the course until I returned, as an adult, to some of these kid craft kits. Dude, they're fucking hard. My nimble grown-up art-degree hands couldn't get the vase to look remotely like the picture on the box; of course Ages 6-12 would have a hard time.

It's not a silver-bullet cure, but maybe it'd help if you guys took on some kind of project together, something that she's interested in (she might not be interested at all in softball), but that both of you find challenging. Model airplane building causes a lot less grief when you realize that it's difficult for grown-ups too.

Generally speaking, let her know that she's not expected to be perfect at everything, that failure isn't final, that trying is how you learn new things and it's okay to mess up along the way. Encourage (but don't force) her to do things that don't come naturally to her, and reward her if she's putting in a real effort.

I don't have a good answer other than that, but I agree that this is something that needs to be taken care of now; your daughter will be a lot happier in the long run.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:56 AM on May 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Nthing what the others have said; your wife (and yourself) need to be seen doing new things, failing and improving with practice.

Heck, with our 4 year old, sometimes even if I know perfectly well how to do something, I'll make a mistake and let him correct me on it, or at least notice that I didn't do it right. He's getting better; if he spills milk/food at the dinner table he now happily says, "Oppps, I need to help clean this!" while when he first lived here, it would be 30 minutes of inconsolable crying.

However, when it comes to the Wii, he'll play a minigame about 2-3 times tops, and if he's not good enough, then he'll have a fit if someone won't play the game for him. During the Sesame Street song "Everyone makes Mistakes" he'll still insist that he doesn't make any. And then I'll point out the most recent mistake that both he and I have done. Then I get the pouty face for a few seconds.

Are there older siblings? We've had to talk to the older brothers to remind them not to coddle him too much - work on teaching him to do better rather than doing it for him, unless it's something that needs doing (a stubborn pants button when he's gotta pee NOW). At his foster parents, as they had 2 of their own, they rewarded the kids to help him with any and everything just to have it done, never mind that he was already delayed in a lot of skills. And it showed - his IEP's since moving in show remarkable progress. Also, work on that yourself if necessary.

But I doubt the effect of any professional help if Ms. unixrat isn't also getting professional help and modelling good behavior. Your kid will see the two of you a lot more than the pdoc, and being female, she will probably try to more closely model her mother.
posted by nobeagle at 10:16 AM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the advice, everyone. It's clear that I've been approaching this issue wrong.

I'll talk to my wife again and we'll try and set a course for getting some help for our daughter with this. I will rely on my wife's experience that it's a tough, painful nut to crack and needs a little more help than coupons for a couple of hours at the batting cage. (That's just a bit of gallows humor.)
posted by unixrat at 10:47 AM on May 23, 2008

Definitely more activities that aren't about doing them "right".

One thing I've seen suggested for kids who hate to lose at games is to play a lot of blackjack or similar game: really fast, you lose a lot, and then the next hand gets dealt.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:47 AM on May 23, 2008

I wonder if your daughter could benefit from constructing (with your assistance) an alternate persona to contain the embarrassment and shame from failing at new things she cannot tolerate as herself.

In other words, your wonderful daughter Good Girl Elizabeth, with her perfect table manners, flawlessly brushed hair, and spotless beautiful clothes, cannot help crying and running away when she forgets the words of the song, but Betty the Bad, with her tangled mop, wearing shoes from different pairs and an orange sock and a chartreuse sock, only grins from ear to ear and mouths something rude while the conductor prays there are no lip readers in the audience and thanks his lucky stars she didn't goose little Hannah standing next to her to make her yelp the way she did last time-- and Betty's parents love her just as much despite all that, or maybe even because of it a little.

I've seen kids who can't control their bad impulses do something like this to preserve enough of a sense of themselves as good kids to go forward in their lives (the celebrated 'evil twin'), and that can conceivably make for serious trouble later, but I see no reason your daughter couldn't use the same strategy to her advantage without undue concern.

There are plenty of basically comic kids' books out there with Bad Betty heroines; you could try those on her, and if she's interested in clothes, you could encourage her to think in terms of costumes, then lead that into playacting roles of wild, daring little girls.
posted by jamjam at 12:13 PM on May 23, 2008

Describing your daughter, you could be describing me as a kid. I *hated* doing anything that I didn't already know how to do. I don't feel life I could accurately explain the way that would make me feel inside. I really don't think it was learned behavior, but I also believe it could have been un-learned. And I would have been happier as a child if it had been.

FWIW, I haven't been diagnosed with it, but I'm pretty sure I have a mild form of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, too, as someone above mentioned. I don't have anything concrete to back it up, but it feels like these two traits might be connected.

I honestly don't think that setting an example of "just do it" - showing her that nothing bad will happen if she just tries - will really help. IF your daughter (and wife) felt the way I used to then it's more like a phobia. Logic alone isn't going to help. I don't know if therapy *will* help, but I think it would be worth trying.

(Btw, I do still hate doing something I don't know how to do, but I've figured out that if I read about something first, it feels less like I don't know how to do it. So, if I were to go play golf for the first time, I'd first read a bit about how to golf in order to not completely freeze up and panic.)
posted by INTPLibrarian at 1:37 PM on May 23, 2008

Further insight:

Po Bronson, New York Magazine's go-to child psychologist, says that American parents' compulsive praise has made a generation of children terrified of failing. Imagine that trend catching up to a kid who's already wired to be a perfectionist. Essentially he advises parents that praise children for trying, not for succeeding. For example, if your daughter has finally completed a difficult puzzle, say something like, "Wow, I'm impressed with how hard you worked on that without giving up," as opposed to, "Look how smart you are!" The first praise reinforces the act of attempting, thinking, and following through with difficult tasks. The second praise implies that a less brilliant kid wouldn't have fared so well, making perfectionist children terrified of doing things at which they might fail.

Article here.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:10 PM on May 24, 2008

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