The Pitfalls of Perfectionism and How We Can Help Our Kids Deal With It

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My son with his bandmates at his California Scholarship Federation banquet where he was named valedictorian.

In a recent article in the Washington Post called “Perfectionism among teens is rampant (and we’re not helping)” by Rachel Simmons, the author has three good tips for parents to help their kids with feelings of pressure and anxiety which stem from perfectionism.

I’m a perfectionist and I slave over my articles looking for typos. I come unhinged when one gets by me. Then, I expected nothing less than greatness from my kids–who by the way–didn’t let me down. When my son wanted the title of valedictorian and set out a plan his freshman year, I was there to help him make it. I’d remind him of his goal and to not let up his senior year during his quest. My daughter’s goals were in swimming and she was hard on herself and would turn frustration and disappointment in herself into fuel to try again and succeed.

I remember back in the days when I’d volunteer in the classroom, I’d watch kids who couldn’t finish their work if their life depended upon it. They’d write a sentence and then erase it, repeatedly. It was never perfect enough for them and they’d end up with a smudgy mess, which caused them more distress. My heart ached for these kids, and I tried to let them know they could just write anything down and it would be okay. My son struggled with his college essays because he said, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever written” and he would stare at a blank computer screen for eight hours each day.

Here’s what I learned from the WAPO article about perfectionism and how it leads to anxiety and depression. However, there are ways we can help our kids overcome the problems with perfectionism:

 I’ve spent the last two years talking with parents about the unprecedented stress and anxiety plaguing their adolescents — nearly half of whom, according to recent studies of college students, report feeling “overwhelmed by all I had to do.” Our conversations often end with parents expressing a mournful wish: “I just want her to be happy,” they tell me. “But she puts so much pressure on herself.”

As parents, we say this phrase from a place of good intention. We want to signal to our children that we don’t need or expect them to be perfect, and that we will love them no matter what. Yet the very phrasing of the statement — “on herself” — lays blame for distress at the feet of our teens, rather than a culture that is stoking the flames of their anxiety. It puts the onus for change on kids – just chill, we seem to be saying, and you’ll be okay! – letting the rest of us off the hook, even as we may unwittingly exacerbate their distress.

In fact, we may be making it worse. A new study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” finds that young people are more burdened than ever by pressure from others, and that includes parents. Psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill found that unhealthy perfectionism has surged among young adults, with the biggest increase seen in those who feel pressured by the expectations of others. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, is a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”). In its unhealthiest forms, perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide.

Stop using those words. Parents might do well to consider a different tack. “It’s so hard right now to feel like anyone is successful enough,” you might say. “We are all feeling the pressure, and I hope you’ll tell me if I can do anything to make things easier.”

Look at the big picture. No matter how much you urge them to relax, and how much you mean it, your child probably grapples with highly stressful environments away from home, whether it’s where they go to school, the teams they play on, or the peers in their social circle. Most teenagers I know long for empathy from their parents about their struggle. Validating how tough it is out there will go a long way.

Make sure your actions match your words. Many teenagers I’ve talked to call their parents’ bluff when told that they just “want you to be happy.” They suspect what their parents secretly want is a high GPA. New research is confirming teens’ claims, finding that, when it comes to parents, there is often a split between what we tell our children — “just do your best!” — and what we may actually believe.

I believe the article I wrote last week about being “good enough” is important. It’s okay not to be the most outstanding, but more important to be balanced in life with love, work, hobbies and enjoying what you do.

kat medals

My daughter with some of her spoils from swimming.

 

How do you help your children overcome the tendencies of perfectionism?

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5 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Perfectionism and How We Can Help Our Kids Deal With It

  1. It’s funny. My daughter had to fill out her school survey for the guidance counselor so the gc can help her find schools. They ask for weaknesses, and my kid asked me what her greatest weakness is, and I said perfectionism. It’s really a hard battle, because I tell my kid the effort is what’s important, but in her mind it translates to her best effort is to be perfect. I try to tell her that there is no such thing as perfect, because everything is subjective. I also make sure she relaxes and gets out of her head sometimes. I make tea at 11 and we talk over our days. It gives her a chance to recoup. But I spend a lot of time trying to get her to chill

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