How to Combat Perfectionism in Teens

Recent research shows that perfectionism – which includes a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations – is on the rise among children and adolescents, and that this tendency negatively affects their mental health. Since we all know that humans are not perfect, trying to be perfect is stressful, depressing, exhausting, and causes anxiety. Today’s blog will discuss the signs of perfectionism in teens, the negative impacts perfectionism has, and how parents can best address their teen’s perfectionist tendencies.

Signs your Teens is Struggling with Perfectionism

Teens who are perfectionists exhibit many (but not all) of these characteristics:

  • being overly cautious; not willing to take risks
  • focusing on mistakes rather than successes
  • setting unrealistic goals and getting upset if they are not reached
  • needing to ask a lot of questions when given a task
  • being inflexible or believing there’s only one right way to do a task
  • critical of others; judgmental when others “fail”
  • hard on themselves when they “fail” or can’t meet their high expectations
  • high sensitivity and defensiveness to criticism
  • difficulty completing tasks because the work is never ‘good enough’
  • procrastinating to avoid difficult tasks if they fear they might fail
  • self-critical, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed
  • difficulty making decisions or prioritizing
  • anxious over failing or doing something incorrectly
  • believing they failed if someone else does a task better (i.e. your student scores one goal in the game, but someone else scores two, so your student feels like they failed)
  • repeats tasks over and over to get them just right


Negative Impacts of Perfectionism

The dictionary defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” Some people consider perfectionism a good thing, because perfectionists are motivated, conscientious, committed and hard workers. While this is true, perfectionists also have higher levels of stress, depression, burnout, low self-esteem, and anxiety. Non-perfectionists can still be motivated and conscientious without the negative effects. Ironically, research from a December 2018 article from Harvard Business Review demonstrated that “perfectionists are not better or worse performers than non-perfectionists.”

The negative impacts of perfectionism are:

Low self-esteem. A perfect performance is connected with a perfectionist’s sense of self. When a perfectionist doesn’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are as a person. Perfectionists fear that a mistake will lead others to lose respect or think badly of them. They believe their self-worth depends on their perfect performance.

Risk averse. A perfectionist’s fear of failure prevents them from trying new things. To be a healthy and successful human, you have to learn from your mistakes; and to be able to learn from your mistakes, you have to be comfortable with making them. But in general, perfectionists are not. They tend to avoid making mistakes by sticking to tasks they feel most comfortable with or avoiding challenges. Unfortunately, when we avoid risks, we never have the opportunity to be creative, discover new ideas or passions, learn new skills, or establish our own identities.

Overly critical. Perfectionists will often have a harsh internal dialogue, in which their “inner critic” constantly tells them that they’re not good enough — no matter what they do or how hard they try. You might see your teen overreacting to obstacles, or feeling an excessive amount of guilt, shame or anger when they fail to live up to their own high expectations. The inner dialogue a teen has is very important to their self-worth and their resilience. For example, consider the student who works hard and gets a poor grade. If she tells herself: “I’m disappointed, but it’s okay; I’m still a good person overall,” that’s healthy. If she says to herself: “I’m a failure. I’m not good enough,” that’s perfectionism.

Procrastination. Many perfectionists doubt their ability to accomplish tasks. Some of them never start a task because they fear that they will not be able to complete it perfectly, while others do not finish a task because they never feel their work is “good enough.”

Failure to learn. Mistakes are a necessary part of growing and learning. We must make mistakes to finally achieve success. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can actually make it harder for themselves to reach their own lofty goals. They don’t learn the lessons they need to become more successful in the future.

Poor health. Research has shown that perfectionist tendencies predict mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and stress. Perfectionism has even been linked to self-harm, social anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding, insomnia, high blood pressure, chronic headaches, and suicide.

What Parents Can Do

So, if we know that perfectionism is not healthy for our teens, we must work to combat it. If you believe your teen has perfectionist tendencies, there are several things you can do to address the situation:

Praise effort, not results. Avoid praising your teen for the results they achieve, but rather for the hard work they put in. For example, instead of praising your child for getting a 100 on the math test, compliment them for studying hard. Praise your teen every time you see them treating others with kindness or being a good friend. If your focus is on achievement, then youth become very averse to mistakes. Think about it… if a teen is only praised whenever they do something well and not praised when they don’t, they will believe they are only really worth something when they have accomplished a result or when they obtain others’ approval. Try saying things to your teen like ‘You really tried hard at that. I’m proud of the effort you put in.”

Discuss famous failures. Abraham Lincoln lost seven elections before he was elected President of the United States. History is full of examples of people who failed multiple times before they finally gained success. If your teen loves a particular athlete, singer, or other famous person, read up on their biography so you can point out to your teen how their hero overcame a failure.

Encourage healthy risks. To avoid perfectionism, parents and teachers can encourage teens to take on challenging situations. Suggest your teen play a sport they don’t excel at, or learn a new musical instrument, or try a new skill, simply for the fun of it. Don’t protect your teen from their failures. Allow them the chance to experience a failure, learn from it, and realize that it is possible to be imperfect and still have a good life. Make sure that you are role modeling the behavior you want to see, such as taking on challenges and trying new things in your own life.

Tame the inner critic. Teach your child to use self-compassion as opposed to self-criticism. When your teen is beating themselves up over a mistake, ask them how they’d treat a friend and what they’d say to their friend if they were going through a similar situation. Also role model treating yourself with kindness when you make a mistake. Say things like, “I forgot to go to the bank today before they closed. No big deal, I’ll just do it tomorrow,” or “I wasn’t paying attention to the stove and I burned dinner. I’ll find something else for us to eat and I’ll pay better attention when I’m cooking it.”

Set reasonable standards. Parents can be overly concerned with their teen’s mistakes, which communicates criticism. Make sure you reduce academic pressures by de-emphasizing the importance of performance and tests. Emphasize life balance by minimizing overscheduling and giving teens downtime. If your teen sets a goal that requires perfection, talk to them about the dangers of setting unrealistically high goals and help them establish more realistic goals.

Teach healthy coping skills. Although failure is uncomfortable, it’s not intolerable. Teach your child how to deal with disappointment, rejection, and mistakes in a healthy way. Here are a few coping skills that can help your teen deal with their feelings: talking to a friend, writing in a journal, taking a walk or some other form of enjoyable exercise, listening to music, taking a bath, or drawing a picture.

Identify what can be controlled. Whether your teen wants to be the best soccer player on the team or they want to ace every science test, make it clear that they can’t control many of the circumstances that influence their success. For example, your teen can’t control how hard the teacher makes the tests or how well their peers perform on the team. Your teen can only control their own effort. When your teen realizes that not everything is controllable, they will no longer look at a failure as all their fault.

Promote kindness. The values that children believe are important to their parents have a significant impact on their development. In fact, in a study released in November 2016 by Arizona State University, researchers discovered that children performed better in school – both in grades and behavior – if they believed that their parents valued kindness over personal achievement or success. Ironically, the research demonstrated that parents who pushed their children to achieve academically actually had lower grades and were more likely to experience depression or anxiety.

Exhibit unconditional acceptance. The most important thing you can do is communicate – through your words and your actions – that your love, approval, affection and care aren’t conditional on your teen’s performance.

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