|Erin practising piano, 2003, age 9|
The thing I've found the most helpful with my extreme perfectionists has been to help them set very specific "imperfection expectations" before attempting a task. For instance, if we're going to work on the first phrase in a new violin piece, I'll say "This isn't the sort of thing kids get on the first try. You'll be making some mistakes. How many mistakes are you willing to make today? How many good tries shall we shoot for?" A perfectionist will be shooting for mastery on the first try, but will usually intellectually appreciate that it's going to take a few tries. By putting the focus on "five good tries" and on willingly accepting four "mistakes", I've had some success breaking down my kids' expectations that they'll master something on the first try. General platitudes like "mistakes help us learn" don't work with my kids very well because they still know that the aim is to get past mistakes to mastery, and they focus too singlemindedly on the mastery. They need help articulating specific expectations about mistakes, like "today I am willing to accept seven mistakes on this math page."
Another strategy that has been helpful has been to encourage my kids to actively monitor their emotional state -- their level of anxiety, frustration and anger. When perfectionists get anxious, they see only one solution to mounting frustration -- mastery! If they can learn to recognize small levels of frustration and anxiety before the anxious feelings get so overwhelming that they can no longer access their coping mechanisms, they'll do much better at de-escalating. We used a colour scale to monitor feelings (I actually drew it out like a thermometer on a paper plate), from "cool blue" through "intent green" to "worried yellow" to "frustrated orange" to "the scary red zone". I'd encourage my child to assess his or her feelings after every try of a piano rhythm, or every time he/she reached for the eraser when drawing, or after every word when printing. Our aim was to intervene when feelings nudged into the yellow realm, long before they hit the orange or red area. Intervention was anything from humour to a snack to a bit of physical activity or a "time in chat" or another form of break.