Has your child come home from school distraught because they didn’t get an A on a test? Do they spend an exorbitant amount of time on homework because they want to do get it just right and feel overwhelmed when they don’t? Do they spend hours practicing and then are shattered when they don’t make the team, miss a pass or forget a line.

Do you get the sense that your child’s perfectionism is getting interfering with their ability to manage tasks and feel good about their achievements?

It’s natural for parents to want their children to do well and we all celebrate when children have a good work ethic and are conscientious. Some kids are simply high achievers. They enjoy striving for excellence and cope well with the normal setbacks.

However, research shows that a growing number of adolescents and teens struggle with unhealthy perfectionism. They are motivated by a fear of failure, are hyper self-critical, and set unrealistically high goals for themselves to prove their worth to others.

A 2019 study of more than 40,000 college students in the United States, Canada and U.K. published by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill in the Psychological Bulletin, found that perfectionism among young adults has increased significantly between the late 1980s and 2016. The authors defined three categories of perfectionism: Self-oriented, socially prescribed and other-oriented. The study showed a 33% increase in socially prescribed, or perfectionism linked to perceived pressures from society, a 10% percent increase in the pressure they put on themselves to be perfect and a 16% percent increase in their expectation of perfection in others.

A combination of influences are thought to factor into the rise. Today’s young people face greater academic and professional competition, their parents are often success-oriented and ambitious for their children, and material and social success are admired. Plus, social media relentlessly drives messaging about societal ideals of beauty and lifestyle that young people are comparing themselves to and trying to attain.

Perfectionism and Mental Health

The impact on a young person’s mental health can be significant. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are commonly associated with perfectionism. Researchers also believe that unhealthy perfectionism is one factor contributing to rising suicide rates.

Common traits of unhealthy perfectionist tendencies include:

  • Having high, unrealistic goals.
  • Giving up on tasks if they feel that they can’t be the best or “win.”
  • Viewing mistakes as failures they are ashamed of.
  • Spending an excessive amount of time planning or redoing work to make it “perfect.”
  • Being overly concerned with what other people think about them and believing that, if their flaws are exposed, they will be rejected.
  • Feeling stressed and anxious when things don’t go to plan.

Perfectionism leads to high levels of burnout, which ends up making the perfectionist’s original goals even more difficult to attain.

Watch Isabella Fons’ talk about unhealthy perfectionism and the journey to overcoming her tendencies, as a powerful example of what many young people experience.  

Parenting Strategies

As a parent, what can you do to help your child overcome their perfectionist tendencies?

  1. Start by helping your child become more aware of their perfectionistic mindset and harsh inner voice. Challenge their negative self-judgment. When your child says: “I can’t do this. This math is easy for everyone else. I’m just stupid,” ask them to reflect on what they just said and what triggered the thought pattern. Remind them that they are trying something for the first time and will learn how to do it. Affirm that the math problem is probably challenging and that others will find it challenging too.  
  2. Teach them to recognize and challenge impossibly high standards. Remind them that nobody makes the basket every single time or gets an A on every test. Encourage them to reframe their goals in terms of making progress, rather than attaining perfection. The endeavor is worthwhile even, when the result is not perfect.
  3. Get them into the habit of considering “What’s the worst thing that will happen if…?” It’s important for young people to realize that the world won’t end if they don’t get an A or can’t make the basket.
  4. Encourage them to take breaks from social media and help them develop a critical perspective of what they see on Instagram, Tik ToK or Snap Chat.
  5. Help your child to think differently about mistakes and setbacks by sharing your own experiences. We all make mistakes, usually learn from them and often move on to better things.
  6. Encourage them be more compassionate with themselves, turn down the critical inner voice and practice compassionate self-talk.
  7. Consider how you speak to your child and the messages you are sending. Strive for affirmation, rather than criticism.

Finally, be a role model. Don’t shield your child from your mistakes. Take risks and have the courage to fail. When you fail, try again. By watching you, they can learn that their imperfections won’t change the wonderful person they are, how much they are loved or how capable they are.

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