When I was in high school, our attempts to project a perfect lifestyle were limited to covering up our acne with concealer and boasting about fun we may or may not have actually had. In contrast, it seems like today’s perfectionist teenagers are filtering and editing feverishly to craft the illusion of a perfect life they can share on social media.
One new study in the Psychological Bulletin (April 2019) found that “recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, they are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.”
In other words, the goal of teenage perfectionism has increased over time.
Types of Perfectionism
As a parent, if you feel that your teen has developed a number of perfectionist tendencies, it’s important to understand two types of perfectionism that teens seek:
A self-oriented perfectionist engages in rigorous self-evaluation. They possess strong internal motivation to obtain perfection and try to avoid failure at all cost. These are the kids who put pressure on themselves, without any, or very little, push from parents or teachers.
A socially-prescribed perfectionist believes that other people or institutions have unrealistic expectations for them. The pressure to be perfect is external. These are the kids who take to heart comments from teachers, coaches, parents, and friends.
No matter where the pressure is coming from, it’s easy for anxiety and perfectionist tendencies to increase during high school and college.
Perfectionism Looks Different for Different Kids
Teenage perfectionism can also manifest itself differently within diverse subsets.
Academically gifted kids
Academically gifted students who have been praised for being smart starting from a young age often grapple with perfectionism and the pressure to excel in every school subject. For students like this, standardized testing and the college admissions process can place enormous pressure upon them to outperform peers.
Athletically gifted kids
The same goes for athletically gifted kids who face the burden to be the best and receive offers to play their sport at the college level, while maintaining decent grades and still having a normal teenage life.
Among girls, especially, perfectionist tendencies can oftentimes result in disordered eating and excessive exercising.
Consequences of Perfectionism
Parents should be mindful that striving for perfectionism can lead to depression and procrastination.
Perfectionist teenagers who try to live up to unrealistic expectations can become depressed when they realize that nothing in their life can ever be perfect. For those with a genetic predisposition for mental illness, the risk is even greater.
It also makes sense that teens with perfectionist tendencies can become procrastinators. Indecision about every single step in a process can overwhelm, whether it’s studying to increase an SAT score, finding a part-time job, or making the next level team in their chosen sport. Procrastination serves to delay discovering further imperfections and the resulting disappointment.
As parents, it’s essential that we help our teens deal with the need for perfectionism. This is especially important before they finish high school and move on to college or down other paths in life, where the pressures to perform can seem even greater.
5 Strategies that Can Help Perfectionists
1. Listen to and observe teens carefully.
Do they often say things like, “I can’t do this” and wait until the last possible hour to start a project or important task? Teach them to recognize and challenge impossibly high standards and to realize when they are overestimating the cost of mistakes.
Get them into the habit of playing the “What’s the worst thing that will happen if…” game. When kids can acknowledge that it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t get an A on one test, they can utilize this approach in other aspects of their life as well.
2. Encourage your child to become a list maker.
Kids with perfectionist tendencies tend to ruminate on past failures. They become frozen with fear over the steps required for their next big endeavor. Creating a checklist can be a helpful tool that breaks down a complicated process into manageable steps. It’s beneficial for kids to cross off completed items and move on without further pondering.
3. Become a failure role model.
Create opportunities for your child to witness you not being perfect at something important. Then follow it by a discussion about how you move past inevitable failures in life.
Whether it’s a work or relationship issue, we all experience setbacks and letdowns, yet we often attempt to shield our kids from these experiences. Role modeling is particularly important if you feel that your child thinks you place strong pressure on them to perform.
4. Help your teen find a mentor.
This could be an older family member like a trusted cousin, or a neighbor who’s known them for years. Schools and many job sites are ripe with opportunities for students or employees to find a mentor. It’s extremely advantageous to have one in campus and career settings. Mentors provide perspective, support, and serve as living proof that one doesn’t need to be perfect in order to succeed.
5. Promote the re-branding of your teen’s goals.
We often hear a perfectionist teenager use negative phrases like “I messed up” or “I’m scared of doing this wrong.” Help create a mindset shift by letting them know that, in most cases, getting things done is more important than doing things perfectly. Get them in the habit of repeating mantras like: “Mistakes aren’t fun but they always teach me something” and “Progress is my goal, not perfection.”
By recognizing and confronting the persistent messages our teens receive about success and performance, we can help them become more resilient and better able to resist the lure of unattainable perfectionism.