I knew my son’s transition to middle school would be difficult. But his biggest struggle was something I never anticipated: an intense internalized pressure to succeed and an inability to accept anything less than perfection.
This sounds like a good thing, right? First semester, my son pulled a 95 percent average and made the principal’s honor roll. But soon I began to hear things like, “Next semester, I need a 98 percent average.” He started to dread doing his schoolwork because he wanted to score as highly as possible.
When he began losing sleep, I realized his perfectionism was becoming a problem.
Traits of a Perfectionistic Teen
Perfectionism among teens is rampant, says Jessica Howard, founder of SEAD (Social-Emotional Adolescent Development), an online resource for teens and their parents. Howard, who holds an Ed.D. in gifted education, warns that perfectionism doesn’t always look like a high-achieving kid.
Perfectionists “avoid risk-taking because they don’t want to get things wrong,” she explains. They exhibit rigid thinking, believing perfection is the only option. Sometimes they are model students; other times they have trouble completing their work and may be disruptive in class.
Jamie Dana, a psychotherapist in Phoenix, says perfectionism can stem from parents, teachers, peers, and cultural expectations. She points to social media, too, which has “raised the bar, introducing the drive to project an image of constant success.”
When Perfectionism Becomes a Problem
When your teen is constantly mentioning unrealistic goals, it’s a sign that perfectionism is getting the better of them, says Howard. “Kids shut down and stop doing things,” she describes. “They may break down in tears because they want it to be perfect the first time.”
According to Howard, a teen may show signs of “mental paralysis,” an inability to make decisions or complete tasks. Anxiety is prominent—not just at school, but also at extracurriculars and with friends. Extreme perfectionism can manifest in stomachaches, headaches, avoidance behaviors, anger, and irrational fears.
7 Tips for Managing Perfectionism
Howard urges parents to help change their kids’ inner dialogue surrounding perfection. Here’s how:
1. Praise effort, not ability.
When your teen brings home an A, instead of saying “You’re so smart!” say, “I know you worked really hard!”
2. Focus on the process, not the product.
If your teen’s team loses the playoffs, help them reflect on the bigger picture, like the growth they made that year.
3. Reward persistence.
If your teen is struggling with a math concept or bombed a test, don’t punish or criticize. Rather, say, “It’s okay, keep trying.” Encourage them to get help from a teacher.
4. Break difficult tasks into small, attainable goals.
For example, suggest your teen write note cards or a rough outline rather than tackle the whole essay in one night.
5. Reframe mistakes as learning opportunities.
If your teen forgets to turn in assignments, have them plan how they can prepare differently. It could be a reminder on their phone or putting the assignment in their backpack immediately.
6. Encourage involvement in at least one non-judged or scored activity.
Try an improv troupe, literary magazine, nature club, yoga, or volunteering.
7. Model resilient behavior.
Howard cautions parents to be mindful of how we deal with our own failures. We can model how we overcome adversity, showing our kids our own mistakes are not the end of the world. I missed a client meeting today, but I called to apologize, and we got it rescheduled.
Dana encourages parents to reach out for support as early as possible, noting, “Research shows catching rigid or perfectionistic thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety or depression early yields the best outcomes for improvement.” And if your teen rolls their eyes as you reframe the discussion around perfectionism? Do it anyway, says Howard. “You might not think they’re listening, but they are.”