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The Perfectionism Trap: How to Free Your Teen (and Yourself) from Unrealistic Expectation

Mary Warren
Mary Warren

Therapeutic Consultant
and Parenting Coach

Imagine this: Your bright, dedicated teenage daughter has poured countless hours into a project. She spirals into despair when she gets a B instead of an A. This isn’t just about the grade; it’s the heavy weight of striving for perfection—a weight too heavy for a teen to bear. Chasing this level of perfection results in angst for teens (and their parents) and devastating disappointment due to unrealistic expectations!

Today, the pressure to succeed is more intense than ever before. These teens, brimming with potential, have sky-high expectations from themselves, their school, peers, and their parents. But here’s the problem:

Perfectionism isn’t the same as striving for excellence, and it can be incredibly harmful to a teen’s mental health and well-being, and even damage your relationship with them. Perfectionism prevents success!

What is Perfectionism?

The clinical definition of perfectionism is the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems. In other words, a personality trait characterized by a need to be perfect, fear of failure, and harsh self-criticism.

Psychologists distinguish between Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Perfectionism:

      • Adaptive Perfectionism: Striving for excellence while maintaining realistic expectations and self-acceptance.

      • Maladaptive Perfectionism: Setting unattainable standards, leading to negative consequences for mental health and well-being.

    Understanding the Perfectionist Mindset

    At its core, perfectionism is the relentless demand for oneself to be flawless and the intense fear of making even minor mistakes. While striving for excellence fosters growth and ambition, perfectionism is uncompromising and unattainable. It leaves teens stuck in a cycle of anxiety, self-criticism, and the fear of disappointing others (or themselves).

    High-achieving parents often inadvertently fuel our kids’ perfectionism, making teens feel they must live up to our expectations. They compare themselves and their achievements to their successful parents, highly-achieving siblings, or peers. This type of comparison leads to mental health struggles, burnout, and even unhealthy coping mechanisms as the teen seeks relief from the relentless pressure by self-medicating, using substances and trying risky behaviors. 

    Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.

    Perfectionism's Hidden Harm: How it Impacts Everyone in Your Home

    Perfectionism doesn’t just impact the teen; it affects all their relationships. Children with perfectionist tendencies become critical of anyone who doesn’t meet their high standards. They create distance from those around them, especially any adult in authority, resulting in tension and damaging the parent-child bond. Parents in these situations may feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells or that nothing they say or do is ever good enough for their perfectionist child.

    The Hidden Toll – Perfectionism and Teen Mental Health

    It’s disheartening to see how often the connection between perfectionism and mental health struggles is overlooked. It’s especially concerning when we consider the unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder that our teenagers are facing today. We must show compassion and support to those struggling and work together to address this issue. 

    It’s important to understand that no one is perfect, and asking for help when needed is okay. Unfortunately, these psychological conditions sometimes masquerade as mere ambition or high standards, making it harder for parents to recognize the thin line between striving for excellence in a healthy way and harmful perfectionism.

    The pressure for kids to be perfect is high, especially for girls, and social media amplifies it. The pressure to be perfect silently erodes a teen’s self-worth. Today, teens, especially girls, are overwhelmed by stress and trying to keep up with Instagram and TikTok trends. We are living in a culture of socially prescribed perfectionism.

    Our teens fear failure and feel like they’ll never measure up. An essential part of parenting is being vigilant and aware of the connections. As parents, we must understand the connection and be more vigilant and empathetic to our teens’ experiences.

    Spotting signs of perfectionism early can make all the difference in preventing long-term psychological problems. If you think your teen may be a perfectionist, don’t wait to get them (and you) the support and tools to find a more balanced approach to personal achievement.

    Tips to Help Your Teen (and Yourself)

    The good news is that perfectionistic tendencies can be overcome. Here are strategies for parents:

      • Set Realistic Goals: Help your teen break down overwhelming tasks into smaller, achievable steps. Celebrate progress along the way, emphasizing the journey rather than just the outcome. Teach them how to learn from setbacks and see them as opportunities for growth.

      • Focus on Self-Compassion: Replace negative self-talk with the encouragement you’d offer a struggling friend. Teach your teen to challenge their inner critic with phrases like, “Everyone makes mistakes,” or “I’m proud of you for trying.” Model this behavior yourself by acknowledging your own imperfections and focusing on learning.

     

    When to Seek Professional Help

    If your teen’s mood is impacted by their need to be perfect, affects their moods, friendships and overall quality of life, then it is time to get the help they need to treat their anxiety disorders or teen mental health problems.

    Parenting a teenager who struggles with mental health issues or is fueled by the need for perfection is hard! Parent coaching is a vital resource to give you support and help you overcome your own anxiety and manage your stress.

    A parenting coach provides a safe, supportive space to explore the root of your reactions. They will help you understand what you are feeling and experiencing and how that pressure influences your thinking and feelings. Working with a parenting coach like me will help you with personalized strategies to manage anxiety, practice healthy self-care, and model a balanced approach to achievement for your teen.

    Investing in your own well-being will help you cope better and support your teen’s perfectionist tendencies with greater compassion and understanding. Parent coaching will also help you and your family manage stress and discord more effectively.

    Redefining Parenting Success

    Helping your teen understand resilience is a vital life skill learned through overcoming challenges. True success comes from embracing a growth mindset, finding joy, and building strong relationships — not solely from flawless grades or accomplishments.

    If you and your teen struggle with perfectionism, contact me for a complimentary coaching consultation. Support can help you both break free and foster a healthier, happier path forward.

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