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.

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My daughter with some of her spoils from swimming.

 

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

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What I Would Do Differently

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My young Piranhas.

If I could go back in time, say 15 or so years, I’d do things differently as a parent and a swim mom. I’ve loved every minute of being a swim parent and truly believe that signing my kids up for our local club, the Piranha Swim Team, was the single best thing we’ve done for them. Sticking with the team through ups and downs was a plus, too. Not only did my kids become crazily physically fit and skilled swimmers, they learned to never give up through tough times—whether it was an illness, a plateau or learning what a new coach expects.

So what would I do differently? Here’s my list:

One
Not focus on performance.

Sometimes, I get way too caught up in big meets and best times. I wish I could kick back, relax and enjoy the little moments more.

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Medals at a meet.

Two
Not get involved in parent drama.

Like most sports today, where you find a bunch of enthusiastic and involved parents, there’s bound to be some drama. If I could do it over, I’d never take sides or get involved. At times, I didn’t have a choice because of being on the board. But, the drama and problems we lived through don’t amount to beans, anymore.

Three
Realize everybody is different.

Not every swimmer has the same drive or goals. Not every family is going to focus their lives around the pool. It’s okay for some kids to skip practice and have other interests besides school and swimming. I’d be less judgmental if I got a do over!

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Signing day.

Four
Not compare my kids to others.

When my kids were young and new to swimming, it was common for us to compare their progress to other swimmers. That led to upset feelings all around. Looking back on it, things that seemed so big at the moment, were only a fleeting moment in time.

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My son learning to dive with the swim team.

Five
Enjoy every moment of the process.

The years go by so quickly. The friends made with other parents, coaches and officials are ones to treasure. Enjoy it all.

What would you do differently as a swim parent?

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Back when my daughter liked her green fuzzy robe better than the team parka.

An “F” in Parenting or One of My Worst Fails Ever

View of the breathtaking UCSB campus.

View of the breathtaking UCSB campus.

I got a phone call from my son. He told me he got an F in a class. This was during his freshman year of college. I was out of state for a training program for my new job. It was an intense five-day training where I was way out of my comfort zone, removed from parenting, or any thoughts about my college child.   

When my son called it was a jolt. I had the strangest feeling in the pit of my stomach. An “F?” How could that be? Less than a year ago, he had given an amazing valedictorian speech for his high school.

My son and friend at high school graduation.

My son and friend at high school graduation.

I confided this shocking news to a new friend in training with me. He had been a counselor at a major university in a prior career and he told me that my son could get the F removed from his record. He could:

1. Talk to his professor.

2. Retake the class.

3. Talk to people in administration and explain his extenuating circumstances.

That made me feel a little bit better. I called my son and told him “he had to take care of this.” He could never get into graduate school with an F on his record.

I thought about this incident today. I woke up this morning with a stabbing pain in my heart. I cannot believe I told that to my son. After writing weekly swim parenting articles for SwimSwam.com, one of my recurring themes is not focusing on the results. I talk about not looking at times (which translates to grades). It’s the process that counts. Let our kids learn from their mistakes. That’s what I keep saying.

I’m feeling like the worst parent in the world. I did not ask my son, “what is going on? What are you going through?” I didn’t offer support, or find out why he was failing.

My son with his dog, Angus.

My son with his dog, Angus.

I was more concerned with performance. I can’t believe I didn’t question if there was something going on in his life that I should know about. Was I more worried about “what people would say” rather than my son’s well being? 

Although I feel terrible and ashamed, I guess I can say that I’m still learning about parenting. I know for a fact that I used to be too focused on results and performance, rather than the process.

My son, who is in his fifth year of school, is doing great in all aspects of his life. Despite me being his mom, he’s healthy, happy and has learned from his mistakes. I’m trying to learn from my mistakes, too.

My beautiful son when he was three.

My beautiful son when he was a toddler.