Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author, clinical psychologist and mom of four, joins the podcast to discuss the difference between healthy striving and unhealthy perfectionism, and why the most capable kids are often the ones most frightened about failing academically.

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The most capable students are usually the ones most frightened of failing. To an outsider, this student may look incredibly accomplished. But their parents might see someone who frets over the smallest mistake or gets extremely anxious before a test. 

In this episode, Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author, clinical psychologist, and mom of four, explains why gifted students tie their worth to their accomplishments and how to temper that perfectionism.

Perfectionism’s Ties to Worth 

Success is almost always tied to good feedback from teachers and parents. So it’s no wonder why a high-performing student would associate success with worth. The problem with this association, however, is that when a student fails or feels inadequate, they’re left feeling worthless. This is something a great problem solver must overcome.

A good feedback loop isn’t the only reason these students struggle with anxiety and depression. According to Eileen, it’s a myriad of internal and external aggressors that bring about this unhealthy perfectionism, including:

  • Inherent temperament from birth 
  • External experience 
  • Parental interference
  • Peer interference

Let’s say a fourth grader who usually gets near perfect scores just received a failing grade on an exam. The feedback loop is shattered, classmates reinforce the idea that the student will now fail at life, parents project their anxieties, and the student now thinks of what their life will look like moving forward, compared to those hypothetical students that didn’t fail their exam who now have a forever advantage. 

Luckily, life doesn’t work this way. Yes, performance matters, but instead of hyper focusing on one test as a parent, it’s important to broaden that view. Yes, they might’ve failed that test, but that doesn’t mean they cannot recover or meet the goals they had before. 

Failing also gives a student the chance to problem solve a stressful situation something they’ll need to do often in the real world. 

Choosing Healthy Striving Over Unhealthy Perfectionism

Performance is just one facet of a well-lived life. While it’s important, it alone can not lead to success. In actuality, the stress of performing perfectly and consistently will be a student’s biggest barrier in achieving any sort of long-term goal. 

Achieving a goal is actually in spite of perfectionism. Eileen explains the ways perfectionism can get in the way:

  • Beginning a project: The anxiety to be perfect will inhibit the student's ability to start.
  • Killing creativity: Creativity is about exploring every path available. This often means making mistakes, which the student is unwilling to do. 
  • Finishing a project: Because the project must be perfect, the student is never satisfied with the final version.

In perfectionism’s place, healthy striving must be solidified. This gives the student a feeling of energy: It’s enjoyable, chosen, and optimistic. So, while effort is still involved in either a perfectionist or striving approach, the latter won’t lead to anxiety and depression. 

Helping Students Reach Their Potential 

You want your student to succeed. But knowing when to push them and when to stop can feel impossible to gauge. As challenging as it is to accept, the student is the only person that really knows how far they can go. 

What can you do to help? Stop putting emphasis on performance and start equipping your student for a lifelong journey of social and emotional challenges — an approach that will help them achieve a life that's meaningful and satisfying to them. 

One way to equip your student is to help them understand what a “task-irrelevant” thought is.

Imagine two students take a test and both get stuck on the first question. The first student begins to think about all the events that will take place if they fail, such as not getting into a good college and ending up poor. The second student recognizes that they don’t know the answer, but starts thinking through a process of elimination based on what they do know about the question. 

Failure is an important part of the learning process. Without it, creativity fails and the student may fear leaving their comfort zone to try new activities. While a parent can push them to the best of their abilities, they must also listen closely to the student to make sure the path followed is one they want to pursue. 

Guest Links 

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This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

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Episode Transcript

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore Q&A [2:04]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author, clinical psychologist, and mom of four, joins the podcast to discuss the difference between healthy striving and unhealthy perfectionism and why the most capable kids are often the ones most frightened about failing academically.

Dr. Eileen, why are the most capable kids often the ones most frightened about failing academically?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: Isn't that interesting? That's something that I've seen all the time in my practice. To the outside world, these kids often look incredibly accomplished, but their parents see a different side, the way they fret if they make a mistake or they get so anxious before a test, or they worry about what they said and oh, well, that was weird. Somebody's going to think whatever they're going to think. I think some of this has to do with the idea that gifted kids sometimes get that they are their accomplishments or their worth is tied to the sum of their accomplishments. Because they can perform very well and they often get very good feedback from performing well, they can start to believe that they are their performance and this leads them terribly vulnerable. So if they struggle with something, if they fail at something, if somebody else is better than them, they can feel inadequate or even worthless.

Eric Olsen: Yeah. Let's talk chicken in the egg here. Do kids with anxiety pop out that way? Are they getting that feedback a little bit that you mentioned, are we, as parents, projecting our potential anxieties onto them, what's happening there? Maybe more importantly, what can we do as parents to help?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: Well, it's all of the above can contribute, right, because we know that children can come out of the womb with what's called, an inhibited temperament. And these babies, it's about one fifth of babies, when they see something new, like a new mobile, the other kids are like, oh, nice mobile, and these babies get easily overwhelmed and they're arching their back and they're crying and they're harder to soothe. But the interesting thing, and this comes from research by Jerome Kagan, is a goodly percentage of those inhibited babies do not go on to become inhibited toddlers. Isn't that interesting? So their experience somehow modified this innate tendency that they had to be overwhelmed. I think also that we really... Well, we know that the world is a competitive place and it seems like it's splitting more and more into the haves and have nots. So parents pick up on this anxiety and we want to know that our kids are going to be okay.

So sometimes we as parents over focus on the test they took today, and that's not useful because we don't want to hyperfocus on one little dot. We want to have the broader perspective. So how a child does in one particular moment doesn't really matter. It's really about the broader trends, the broader progress that we want to focus on. And with your problem solving focus, if something goes wrong, we need to think in a very practical way about how to move forward.

The other part is, I have so many parents in my practice who are saying, I swear, we are not putting pressure on the kid. And I believe them. I really do. But the problem is, the environment that these kids are swimming in. All their peers are saying, "Oh my gosh, if you flunk a test in fourth grade, if you get anything less than an A on your math test in fourth grade, you're doomed for life and you're going to die poor and alone." And no, that's not true. In real life, there are many possibilities and many paths and we can move forward. This is all about focusing on moving forward.

When are perfectionist tendencies good and useful, and when should we as parents push back on them? [6:01]

Eric Olsen: Yeah. Let's problem solve here, like you mentioned. When we see perfectionist tendencies in our kids, what about this is good and useful? And what about this should we be concerned about?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: We need to make a very important distinction between unhealthy perfectionism and healthy striving. Performance matters, I'm not going to say it doesn't, but it's just one facet of a well lived life. It is not the measure of a human being. What we know from research is that perfectionism is linked to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, all kinds of terrible things. And perfectionistic kids, and adults actually, tend to cling to their perfectionism because they think, ah, if I didn't drive myself this way, I'd just be lying on the couch and never to accomplish anything. So they think that this harshness is the only way to get themselves to do anything. But that is false, because perfectionism, these harsh standards, actually gets in the way of achievement. So if you achieve something, it's despite the perfectionism, not because of it.

Think about it. If we're focused on perfection, that gets in the way of us starting because we're going to procrastinate. "Oh, I don't know. I got to do it perfectly."

It gets in the way of us working on things, because we might over focus on minor details rather than seeing the bigger thing. It kills creativity, because whether you are an engineer or an artist or a writer, creativity is about pushing all the buttons, exploring, trying. You can't do that if you go, "Oh, I got to only write the perfect thing." And it gets in the way of finishing because people are like, "Oh my gosh, it's not perfect. I can't let it go." And any working person knows, you got to turn it in. Right? You got to get it done. So this is really a trap for kids and we have to help them to temper their perfectionism, to allow their real creativity and their real engagement to come through.

The easiest way to distinguish between healthy striving and unhealthy perfectionism is at an emotional level. Healthy striving feels energizing. It's enjoyable, it's chosen, and it's optimistic. So sometimes if I'm working on a chapter that I'm writing and it's flowing, oh my gosh, that's great. And yeah, I do want to polish it. I read every word of every one of my books out loud because I deeply valued the rhythm of language, but let me tell you, that's fun. I enjoy it. So that's different though, than the unhealthy striving, which is driven by a fear of humiliation and failure and the dread of being exposed. So this feels forced, it's not enjoyable and it's unending because there's always more that we could do. So you can see the difference there. It's very clear at an emotional level, the healthy striving, even when it's hard, they both involve effort, like, this is hard, I don't know if I'm going to figure it out, but I'm going to keep going, versus, oh my gosh, I have to do this or everybody's going to know that I'm dumb. Something like that.

Eric Olsen: The distinction is so helpful. I'm so grateful you put it into those words. It helped clarify it for me and I'm sure, our listeners as well. So thank you for that. As parents, we might see our role in raising them well as making sure they have good options when they reach adulthood, that they're not limited, that they're able to do what they want, that they find success in whatever way they define that word, that they maximize their potential. And so, our instinct might be to push a little into the discomfort, into the difficulty. How can we know if we're pushing too hard or potentially not hard enough?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: The short answer is, your kid will tell you. So if there are tears involved often, and it's not helping your kid embrace learning and move forward, then we need to rethink the strategy. So I want to unpack that question a little bit. First, there's the idea of kids reaching their potential. And I have to say, I really don't like that phrase because, well, it makes it sound like there's some gold ring up there that our kids will either leap high enough to reach or fall short.

Eric Olsen: Gold medal or failure.

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: Exactly. And I strongly disagree with that idea. Potential is not an end point. It's a capacity to grow and learn. That's what we want to support. So, yes, I agree. Our job as parents is to prepare kids for life. But we have to think about how do we want to do that? One possibility, which I don't recommend, is to focus intently on performance as if the A now is going to be a guarantee that they will have no problems later on. But guess what? I guarantee the opposite. I guarantee that your child is going to feel stressed and disappointed and struggle. I don't know when or how, but I guarantee that's going to happen because it happens to all of us.

So another approach is to think about, how do we equip our children for their journey? How do we help them develop the social and emotional skills that they're going to need throughout their lives so that they can make the most of their abilities and grow in the ways that are meaningful and satisfying to them.

That's ultimately our goal, is to help kids develop a life that is meaningful and satisfying to them. Now, sometimes people think, ah, that's social, emotional stuff. It's all fuzzy and emotional. Not the way I teach it. So there's a lot of research on what we can do to help kids.

Let's take the example of a child with test anxiety. What we know from research is that when a kid... Okay, let's take the example of two kids who are struggling with a question. Let's say the question is, "What are the five causes of the Civil War?" I don't know if there are five causes of the Civil War, but we'll just go with that. So neither kid knows the answer.

The first kid says, "oh my gosh," or thinks, "oh my gosh, I don't know this answer. I'm going to flunk this test. My teacher's going to be disappointed. My parents will be mad at me. I'm never going to get into a good college. I'm going to die poor and alone."

The second kid also doesn't know the answer, but she looks at the questions and says, "Well, it's got to be something about slavery. So it can't be D. And A and C are possibilities. So, but this one..." And she's kind of working through it.

So this is research based because what research tells us is that kids who are prone to test anxiety have what's called task-irrelevant thoughts. So all of that thing about dying poor and alone and the parents and et cetera, that had nothing to do with the five causes of the Civil War. So what we can do is help these children recognize, oh, that's a task-irrelevant thought.

Mental tricks for your kids to practice when perfectionist thoughts are holding them back

With my clients, I have them imagine taking one of those big red stampers and just put a big red Ka-chunk stamp on it in their imagination saying, irrelevant. And then pull yourself back to the question at hand. If it's on paper, you can underline or circle whatever the keywords are, use your good test taking strategies to figure out to eliminate D or whatever it is. And now they're more capable and competent of doing that. That is not a mushy strategy.

Eric Olsen: Such, such incredibly helpful, Dr. Eileen. Finally, leave us with some next steps advice for parents looking to help rid their kids of perfectionism. How should they think about that challenge? Where should they start?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: Well, let me bring one idea, which is the idea of the learning zone. So kids often hear that mistakes are part of learning, but they don't believe it. They really don't. So what we want to do is, I'll often draw a picture of a rectangle. Imagine a tall rectangle with no lid on the top. And at the bottom third, make all check marks. So this is the mastery or too easy zone. Then in the top third, put all Xs. This is the undeveloped zone. If you give a first grader a calculus problem, they don't know what to do. It's undeveloped. The middle zone is the interesting part. So here we're going to have a mix of Xs and check marks because this is the learning zone. So you're definitely going to get some things wrong. And then I'd ask kids, some kids only want to work in the too easy zone. Why is that?

And the answer is, because they're afraid to make a mistake. But some kids are brave enough to work in the learning zone, which means they're definitely going to get some wrong. But what happens with study and practice and feedback and learning new strategies, some of those Xs turn into check marks, the mastery zone gets bigger, the learning zone moves up and the undeveloped zone goes on forever, because there's always more we can learn. So tell your kids, what should you say if you find you're not doing something perfectly and you're making mistakes? And the answer is, "Yeah, baby, I'm in the zone. This is good."

So I do have a gift for your listeners. If they want to go to opendoorforparents.com, this is a new project I have where I'm providing a two minute video for free every other week. And it's about children's feelings and friendships. They can also check out my books at eileenkennedymoore.com. And if they sign up for my newsletter, they get three free eBooks. One is, My Child Says Nobody Likes Me. Another one is, My Child Cries Easily. And the third one is, When Your Child Gets Bullied.

So, we tend to think of social, emotional issues as one area and academic and professional topics as something completely separate. But that is not true. They are deeply interconnected. Your child's ability to deal with emotions and build strong relationships are strongly important for their progress in life. Unless your kid is planning to be a lighthouse keeper, which is not a growth career area, they really do need to learn to manage emotions and build strong relationships.

Enroll in AoPS Academy Math and Language Arts Summer Camps [16:47]

Eric Olsen: Do you know where else your students can build strong relationships this summer? AoPs Academy's math and language arts summer camps are perfect for your young math beasts and grammar geeks. Whether you're near our 12 physical learning centers across the country, or want to learn online from our AoPS Academy: Virtual Ccampus, our engaging summer camps are high rigor, but low pressure. The perfect mental boost to help your student avoid the summer slide while having a whole lot of fun. Visit AoPS Summer Math & Language Arts Camps today to learn more and secure your student’s spot.

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore Rapid Fire [17:38]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Dr. Eileen, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: This idea of perfection, because I want kids to explore and try and to be able to pursue their curiosity. I want curiosity-driven education.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: Well, I wish I had had the Problem Solvers because I was always a strong student and I went to various schools. In one school, they ran out of money. So basically they flunked all the kids who were in the top math group. And I had to repeat a year of math. So it was not good. Yeah. So, but I think kids today are just so lucky to have resources like Raising Problem Solvers so that they can pursue their curiosity and they're held back by nothing.

I remember with one of my kids, one day she was complaining about, "Oh, math is boring." And I said to her, "Oh, don't worry, sweetie. It always starts out with review, but it'll get more interesting." And she glared at me and she said, "That's what you said last year. And it never happened." I was like, oh dear. So. She later went on to MIT, so she's fine. But it would've been nice to be able to give her something like Raising Problem Solvers to feed that hunger to learn.

Eric Olsen: We're working on it. What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: What part do I hope is most different? I think it's access for everyone because certainly in the United States, there is a lot of inequality in the quality of education that kids have access to. So again, an online program like Raising Problem Solvers helps lift up everybody and that's good for all of us.

Eric Olsen: And what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: Embrace problem solving. It's very tempting to just give kids the answer, but if we can help them to think through the situation, we equip them for life. So for instance, if we notice a problem with our kid, Ross Green has a beautiful system called, Collaborative Problem Solving, so first we start by describing what we've noticed. So I've noticed whatever has happened. And then we listen. We ask the kid, what is going on, to get the child's perspective on the problem. Then we describe the problem in terms of two concerns. So on the one hand this, on the other hand, that. And the other hand is the thing that we on the rest of the world care about. So then we ask the kid, what do you think might help?

Now, my experience is that the first suggestion from the kid is usually completely unreasonable. So let's say the problem is that they're arguing with their sibling while they're doing their homework. All right? So on the one hand, you need to get your homework done. On the other hand, if you throw a shoe at your brother, that's not kind and he could get really hurt. So, so what can we do to solve this? And if the first suggestion is, well, the brother should move out and he's only four, that's not reasonable. But don't pick up the gauntlet here, right? So you just say, "Well, that's one option, but he is only four." And then you ask, what else could we do?

If the kid comes up with a partial solution, then we can ask questions about, what about this circumstance and what if that happens? And you can almost see their little brains growing in front of your eyes as you do this. And if they come up with a good solution, you can say, "Oh, that's interesting. Let's try it." And then we can say later, "Wow, your solution really worked." Or we can help them revise and tweak the solution into something doable. But this is a glorious process to have the kids thinking through the problems. We know that they're going to face problems as they're growing up, even when we're not around to solve them, so we can equip them for their journey.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Dr. Eileen, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [22:13]

Eric Olsen: Good episode, right? A little too close to home for any of us? No? Just me? Well, I'll take it because I loved learning about the dichotomy between healthy striving and unhealthy perfectionism. I loved the really practical mental tips our kids can practice when they catch themselves in unproductive fear loops. And I think I'm going to try that big red, rubber, irrelevant stamp mental trick myself. And may you continue your journey alongside us, raising the great problem solvers for the next generation. See you next week.

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