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A perfect score. A perfect game. A perfect love.
Society consistently tells us to strive for perfection. Most of us are aware that perfect doesn’t exist — or that it’s too subjective to be measurable. But for the perfectionists among us, perfect is the only acceptable standard, and anything short is a disappointment. Anything short is a failure.
It’s an extreme way to move through life, with no grace for mistakes. If left unchecked, perfectionism can lead to a variety of physical and emotional issues, including depression, eating disorders and, in the worst cases, suicide, Gordon Flett, one of the world’s leading researchers on perfectionism, told The Washington Post. And perfectionism isn’t limited to adults. In the last few years, perfectionism has been impacting our teens at ever-increasing rates.
A study from the American Psychological Association found that the “drive to be perfect in body, mind, and career among today’s college students has significantly increased compared with prior generations, which may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health.”
Researchers have a variety of theories as to what’s behind the rise in perfectionism among young people — including social media — but ultimately, for parents who are seeing signs of perfectionism in their teens, the why of the problem comes second to the question of how to help.
Identify When Perfectionism Arises
From a distance, perfectionists look a lot like high achievers. Both succeed in classical ways; both work hard to achieve big goals. For that reason, it can be difficult for parents to determine whether their teen is actually a perfectionist, and struggling with all the issues perfectionists face.
According to Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd. Founder, Center for Parent and Teen Communication at CHOP and author of Congrats – You’re Having a Teen!, the distinction lies in the child’s mindset and ability to accept failure.
Perfectionists “fear failure,” Dr. Ginsburg tells SheKnows. “They don’t have a growth mindset and are not willing to take chances. When they experience a success, they don’t revel in it but instead focus on what didn’t go well.” High achievers, on the other hand, “celebrate their success. They have a growth mindset, meaning they know taking chances is the way to reach their highest level of success … and that only happens when you’re comfortable with failure and understand that’s an opportunity for growth.”
Dr. Ginsburg encourages parents to look for signs of anxiety — symptoms like nervous stomach, poor sleep, and falling apart when things don’t go well — as well as signs that your child is afraid to fail, is focusing on what they’re doing wrong rather than well, and is focusing so hard on achievement that it’s impacting other areas of their life.
Discuss Perfectionism Openly
Talking openly about perfectionism is one important way parents can help teens who are leaning in toward perfectionist thinking and behaviors. Flett suggests parents introduce the concept of “good enough” early, while also discussing the costs and potential negative impact perfectionism can have in real-life situations.
“This emphasis on building awareness is not a one-time thing,” Flett says. “It should be a focus throughout childhood and adolescence as pressures mount.”
Alongside building awareness about perfectionism, parents can also help their perfectionist teens by modeling imperfection. Dr. Ginsburg encourages parents to “show we’re compassionate with ourselves when we don’t score the highest or achieve the most. Model that every opportunity to stretch or grow from failure always ends up getting us to a more successful place.”
And talk about it out loud, Dr. Ginsburg suggests. Talk to your kids about the chances you’re taking, speak openly about how this risk might result in failure or in the opportunity to see how much you can achieve.
Focus On Effort Versus Performance
Dr. Ginsburg encourages parents to focus on who kids are being rather than what they’re doing. “When we focus on who they’re being, that creates safety and minimizes anxiety.”
Also, remind your teens that human beings are “uneven,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “Perfectionists dislike themselves for the things they’re not good at, and as a result, limit ability to achieve their highest success.”
The reality is that truly successful people tend to be great at something even if not at other things, says Dr. Ginsburg. And that “unevenness” is worth celebrating — in ourselves and our teens.
Above All, Love Unconditionally
If you suspect your teen is suffering from perfectionism, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to show love, says Dr. Ginsburg.
“The most protective force in a young life is hands down having the person who knows you most love you and choose to continue to love you. That tells a child it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to have failure.”
The reality is that our society celebrates perfection, but no one can ever be perfect. It means that our teens are always living in the tension between being perfect and being human, and our job as parents is to show them how to thrive in that tension by being present, communicative, and honest about all the ways imperfections and failures make us our greatest selves.
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