Perfectionism, or the tendency to want to do everything flawlessly, is often associated with increased stress and anxiety. Perfectionism combines excessively high personal standards (“I have to do my best at everything”), as well as feelings of failure if the person falls short of those benchmarks. Oftentimes, our need to be perfect stems from fear. We want to prevent something bad from happening to us. If we are “perfect,” we may believe that good things will happen. We may tell ourselves that if we are perfect, people will accept us, we will have good grades, get scholarships, get accepted into a good school, play varsity-level sports, or get a high-paying job. Many people may think that they need to be perfect to be happy.
It comes as no surprise that children and teens today are experiencing more stress and anxiety than previous generations. Increased financial responsibilities for college, housing, and living costs weigh heavily on this generation. Our public schools have bigger class sizes, and staff who are working harder than ever. As a result, teachers and staff are often less able to connect and support our children in proactive ways. There is more pressure to learn more and achieve higher in high school now than ever before (often in a way to stave off future college costs). Teens today are also exposed to social media and a 24/7 news cycle. Finally, the increased violence and threats of violence, can fan the flames of anxiety, particularly in recent years and months. It can be a lot for a teen to handle.
Recent research in the Psychological Bulletin, studied more than 41,000 college students in the last 30 years. The average level of self-oriented perfectionism (unrealistic desire to be perfect) increased 10 percent. Additionally, social perfectionism (feeling pressure from others to be perfect) increased 33 percent. Finally other-oriented perfectionism (holding other people to unrealistic standards) increased by 16 percent. What this means, is that today people are not only putting a great deal of pressure on themselves, but they are also holding other people to very high standards. Many times, these standards are unattainable.
All this perfectionism comes at a cost. Gone unchecked and untreated, perfectionism can lead to body image disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, health problems, relationship problems, and thoughts of homicide or suicide. It can also lead to more difficulties in college or work-life when support systems are no longer as engaged.
What can a parent do to help perfectionism in their child or teen?
Learn about the Growth Mindset
Children with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are who they are (and that they cannot be changed). For example, they may say, “I’m just not good at writing,” when they get a B on their English paper. They believe that they are born with a certain about of talent, and their performance proves their potential. In contrast, a child with a growth mindset believe that they can grow their abilities through learning. They may say something like, “My writing is not perfect, but I’m getting better. I just have to keep working.”
You can help teens develop a growth mindset by encouraging them to take a few risks, and praise their efforts if they make mistakes. Talk to them about how hard it is to be brave and face blunders and embarrassment for the sake of trying something new. Remind them of the times that they have conquered previous challenges. Explain that the point of learning is to make an impact on the world, not to achieve a letter or an award.
Read some biographies (or websites)
Kennedy-Moore and Lowenthal (2011) emphasize in their book, Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, the importance of learning about how successful people have struggled. It can be very therapeutic to learn that Edison tried over 10,000 experiments before the light-bulb, or that J.K. Rowling was rejected by “loads” of publishers before one accepted the Harry Potter manuscripts. (She’s even posted some of the rejection letters online.) One book that can be helpful is Great Failures of the Extremely Successful by Steve Young. Similarly, if your teen is an athlete, teach them the statistics of the game. Consider how many times professional athletes make mistakes, and how hard they struggle to do well.
“Errors are portals for discovery”James Joyce
Teach your child how to be “good enough”
If your child is a perfectionist, don’t tell them “just do your best.” Perfectionists will likely hear this as, “Do the best that you possibly can, even if it kills you.” Kennedy-Moore and Lowenthal suggest using a phrase like, “Make a reasonable effort.” For example, breaking down a project into smaller parts and working on it daily for a few weeks may be reasonable. But, taking on a group project, doing everyone’s part, and losing sleep and health is not reasonable.
Teach by example
Do some self-inventory. Do you obsess over details? Do you worry about your image or what people think of you? Do you get upset when your children do not do tasks to your standards? If so, you will also need to curb some of your own perfectionism. You may need to make a point of putting away your work for the evening. Similarly, you may need to accept someone else’s standards as a yardstick of completion or success. Additionally, let some things go, and let your child/teen know when you do. Make a point of letting your teen see you try something new, acknowledge when you make mistakes, and use a little humor.
Parents can help their teens by using compassionate view of themselves and others. Correct statements that are non-inclusive or judgmental. Also, allow your kids to struggle a little and own their mistakes with graciousness and self-forgiveness. Finally, model imperfection when you can, and most of all, let your children know that you love and support them, mistakes and all.