Dear Dr. Michelle:
Our 12-year-old son has a hard time admitting his mistakes and if we try to point things out to him, it can sometimes lead to a meltdown. He has been like this since he was very young. He also struggles with not apologizing when he does do something wrong. Should we be worried about this or is there something we should do?
Thanks for reaching out. As a parent it can be hard to know when behavior is a normal part of someone’s personality or when it is time to be concerned.
Based on what you have described, it is possible this is just part of your son’s personality. He might have a sensitive ego and for whatever reason, he needs to feel like he is right. Most likely, if people do point out his errors, it probably leads him to feel bad about himself. To some extent, we all try to avoid things that make us feel bad, so naturally, your son will have a hard time admitting to mistakes if it has this effect on him.
First, evaluate whether your son’s behavior is getting in the way of him functioning successfully in daily life, particularly socially. If his sensitivity is not leading to other problems, key an eye on it, but try to accept him for who he is and avoid the need to draw too much attention to his behavior. If his behavior is getting in the way of him completing regular daily activities, then here are some questions to consider:
- Is your son hard on himself or others?
- Does he expect a lot and/or is he demanding?
- Does he often have grandiose ideas in his head that don’t happen the way he thinks they should and then gets upset as a result?
- Is it difficult for him to make decisions?
- Does he seek constant approval from you or others?
If these questions relate to your son, it is possible he has tendencies toward perfectionism. Perfectionism is when someone expects themselves to be perfect in all things, and if that doesn’t occur based on their perception, they can feel they failed. The problem is that “perfect” is impossible to obtain, which can lead to ongoing anxiety.
To avoid feeling bad about oneself, a person with perfectionistic tendencies may show the following behaviors:
- Overdo their efforts to make everything perfect
- Go out of their way to make sure they are right
- Have difficulty making decision out of fear it will be the wrong one
- Defend themselves against all evidence, even if the issue seems inconsequential
Perfectionistic tendencies can be strongly related to feelings of anxiety. When a person is experiencing a high level of disappointment from others, or if they have not done things “perfectly,” their anxiety will rise, and such an overload of feelings can result in a meltdown.
If you think perfectionistic tendencies are possible with your son, you want to monitor your own expectations so as not to feed into it.
- Praise your son’s efforts and the time, energy, and thinking he puts into something rather than praising him for the result.
- Help him manage his own expectations by reviewing the many different positive outcomes that can occur in a situation and focus on the fact that any of those results can be good.
There are some excellent resources available for children and teens dealing with perfectionism and how to manage anxiety and expectations. Here is one resource to review given your son’s age: Perfectionism: A Practical Guide to Managing "Never Good Enough".
Another thing to consider is if your son is reacting to someone else’s perfectionistic tendencies. Are the adults in your family expecting too much of him? Are they too demanding? Does your son know that it is okay to make mistakes? It’s important we don’t expect children to act and think like adults because children are children, not little adults.
If this scenario fits, evaluate the demands and expectations being placed on your son. If the adults in the family tend to point out every time your son is wrong, then his meltdowns could be his way of showing you that he is overloaded by too high of expectations. If this is the case, learn to pick your battles. Reserve your tendency to point out your son’s mistakes for times when his behavior has the potential to hurt others. If he just needs to be right for the sake of being right, then let it go.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.