In a recent article in The New York Times U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy discussed how the intense pressure to achieve may be an important contributing factor to the growing mental health crisis impacting adolescents and teens.

“Young people tell me they feel caught up in hustle culture,” Murthy said in the article. “What they were saying to me was that they felt that they were being asked to chase certain objectives — getting a job with a fancy title, making a lot of money, becoming famous, acquiring power. And not only did many of them say that they were exhausted, but they weren’t sure that was going to bring them happiness. This is where we have to pause and ask ourselves: Are we pushing our kids to pursue what’s really going to lead to their happiness and their fulfillment?”

Murthy’s comments to the Times, come as he focuses on addressing the “pain and despair” today’s young people are experiencing. In December 2021, Murthy issued a rare public health advisory about youth mental health, as alarming data was emerging including a study showing a 40% jump in the suicide rate among youth aged 10 to 19 between 2001 and 2019, and an 88% rise in emergency room visits for self-harm for the same age group.

Since that time, he has been traveling the country to hear from students, healthcare workers and community groups about their views on the issue. Young people’s experiences with the global pandemic, their growing reliance on digital media and an increasing sense of loneliness and isolation, the effects of social media on self-image, the 24-hour news cycle and growing anxiety and hopelessness about the state of the world, as well as a lack of access to mental health care are all contributing factors frequently talked about in these conversations, according to Murthy. 

Less often part of the discussion is our value system, Murthy said. Hustle culture, or the belief that working more, harder and longer is the way to attract true success in school and in life, is often valued and supported by parents, schools and society. Yet, it can be damaging to a young person’s mental health, especially when these values lead to unhealthy perfectionism.  

Many young people feel pressure to attain perfect grades, be perfect athletes, have perfect resumes, look perfect on social media, etc. But perfection doesn’t exist, and a lot of today’s adolescents and teens have trouble coping with failure when it inevitably occurs. Researchers have found that unhealthy perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems.

Socially prescribed perfectionism—the belief that others will value you only if you are perfect—is especially harmful to young people. Social media amplifies the problem. Recent research shows adolescent and teen girls, in particular, are susceptible to the sometimes-harsh commentary about themselves and their appearance on social media as well as critical self-comparison to the unrealistic ideals of perfection they see. Extensive social media use can leave girls feeling inadequate, anxious and depressed.

What Parents Can Do

Adolescents and teens may struggle with stress, anxiety, burnout and negative self-worth when they feel an overwhelming pressure to succeed. But parents can help. Here are some strategies to help your child build a healthier perspective:

  1. Recognize the signs. It is essential to recognize the signs of unhealthy perfectionism. Excessive self-criticism, fear of failure, difficulty handling criticism, procrastination, and low self-esteem are indications that your child may be struggling.
  2. Encourage a growth mindset. Help your child learn that while success does come from effort and hard work, failures and mistakes are a normal part of the process. They are opportunities to learn and grow.
  3. Teach self-compassion. Teach your adolescent and teen to be kind to themselves. Encourage them to talk to themselves the way they would talk to a good friend. Help them see that it’s okay to make mistakes.
  4. Provide perspective. Remind your child that perfection is not attainable, and that everyone makes mistakes.
  5. Model healthy behavior. Parents can model healthy behavior by not being overly critical of themselves or others. Show your child that you have a healthy work-life balance and make time for fun and relaxation.

If your child is pushing themselves too hard or showing unhealthy perfectionist tendencies you may want to consult with their healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Their mental health is more important than an A on a test, a goal on the field or a million likes on social media.

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