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Defeating Toxic Teen Perfectionism in 2024

Defeating Toxic Teen Perfectionism in 2024

In reality, being perfect all the time is back-breaking work.

 

While aiming for the best can be positive, the research is clear: unchecked perfectionism is strongly linked with anxiety, which is rising in teens.

 

Despite this, it’s a trait that’s commonly rewarded. After all, higher levels of perfectionism should mean greater success, right?

 

WRONG.

 

Perfectionists actually tend to achieve less and stress more than high achievers.

 

Why is that? And how do we support teens to be successful while avoiding the heart-breaking hamster wheel of dysfunctional perfectionism?

 

As a parent, one of your greatest wishes is to see your child thrive and avoid unnecessary suffering.

 

As your teen navigates this age of social media-driven comparison and increased competition, understanding how to encourage healthy striving is more important than ever.

 

Being Ambitious vs Being a Perfectionist

I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t your teen need high expectations of themselves in order to achieve?

 

Definitely. But the key difference between a healthy striving teen and one with maladaptive perfectionism is that anything less than “perfect” is seen as a failure.

 

And, as you’ll see further down, perfectionists often set themselves up for frustration by setting unrealistic goals.

 

It is well understood that the stress caused by constantly trying to be perfect can cause anxiety. It’s also been linked to several issues including eating disorders, low self-esteem and sleep disturbances.

 

It can even trigger physical symptoms commonly associated with chronic stress, like digestive problems, headaches or migraines.

 

And, because perfectionists tend to set high expectations for others too, they become isolated and experience loneliness. Which can further predispose them to mental health issues.

 

In other words, instead of being ambitious, they strive for perfection to the point of pain.

 

Understanding Perfectionism

Rejection is painful for the average human. But teens with a perfectionist tendency feel a deeper sense of hurt than usual.

 

The vulnerability that comes from failure, criticism or making a mistake – even something tiny or common – can be unbearable. So striving for the “perfect” grade, performance or physical appearance can become their way of avoiding the emotional pain of rejection.

 

Why do they feel this way?

 

While there may be a genetic component to it, their environment plays a larger role.

 

It could be that they’ve been rewarded for achievements from a young age, and so have established a pattern of seeking recognition to validate their self-worth. (A dangerous game that should be addressed to avoid issues later in life.)

 

It could also be a pattern modelled by perfectionist parents themselves.

 

Some other potential causes could be:

 

● Social media-driven comparison with the pressure to live the “perfect” life

 

● Increased pressure and high expectations from parents and schools

 

● More controlling parenting styles

 

Signs Your Child is a Perfectionist

At its core, perfectionism comes from not feeling safe to be imperfect. This is why perfectionist teens have a tough time being their authentic selves. Below are a few signs to look out for to determine whether your child is struggling with this trait.

 

1. They’re highly self-critical and self-conscious

Does your child tend to be very critical of themselves and others? Or maybe instead of being proud of their achievements, they fixate on imperfections and are deeply frustrated by mistakes.

If so, chances are they have an overactive critical inner voice, which causes them to doubt themselves, struggle with decision-making, and feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skin.

 

2. They procrastinate on hard things

You’ve tried to get your teen to prep for exams or assignments early to avoid the inevitable last-minute meltdown. But they never seem to get it right.

 

It’s not because they’re lazy or unable to manage time. It’s because they have a crippling fear of failure.

 

When they worry about doing something imperfectly, like getting a B or not being top of their class, they become overwhelmed and paralysed.

 

As a result, a vicious cycle is born. Procrastinating and melting down compounds their fear of failure, lack of self-belief and even self-worth.

3. They won’t try new things

If you struggle to get your child to try new things, chances are it’s not because they’re snooty. It’s because they’re scared.

 

Failure is a terrifying prospect for perfectionists, who often struggle with imposter syndrome. And because anything less than perfect is considered a failure, if they can’t do it perfectly from the get-go, they’ll avoid doing it at all.

 

This means they miss out on developing the confidence and feelings of capability that come from mastering a new skill.

 

4. They have unrealistic standards

Another sign your child is a perfectionist is if they set unachievable goals… and then beat themselves up for not getting there. They might also struggle to acknowledge their success because nothing ever feels good enough.

 

For example, if they didn’t come top of their grade or win MVP, they’ll be unsatisfied with an A-aggregate or winning a sports match. And while striving for more is important for achievement, high achievers tend to set realistic goals, celebrate their wins and take joy in extending their goals further. Not putting themselves down.

 

For even the most gifted young person, this destructive perfectionistic pattern will erode their self-confidence and self-belief and affect their overall performance in the long term.

 

5. They’re defensive

If your child is a perfectionist, you’ve probably seen them react faster than a Mento in Coca-Cola if there’s even a hint of criticism. Instead of seeing constructive criticism as valuable to improvement, any sign that they are less-than-perfect is painful and scary.

 

6. They have low self-esteem

Perhaps the most heart-breaking consequence of teen perfectionism is the low self-esteem and confidence that comes from berating themselves and focusing on imperfections.

 

They can also struggle to connect with others because of the unrealistic expectations they place on themselves. Having rigid expectations of others and being critical of their loved ones may also push others away, which compounds feelings of low self-esteem.

 

Help Your Teen Develop Healthy Striving

If you saw your teen in the above points, stress not! Everyone has a growth adventure to embark on, and all this means is that overcoming perfectionism will form part of your teen’s journey.

 

It’s also important to mention that being a teenager, by definition, is to be in a reasonable state of self-doubt and anxiety as they come into their own.

 

Who am I? Do I fit in? Am I liked? Am I loved? These are some of the uncomfortable but important questions they ask themselves as they push away from family and find where they belong amongst their peers. Self-monitoring and social comparison are constant and completely natural.

 

Below are a few simple tips to model and encourage healthy striving for them as they navigate the myriad challenges of adolescence.

 

1. Re-evaluate your expectations

Are you unconsciously putting too much pressure on your teen to achieve? This can sometimes happen when parents themselves have a fear of failure and want to shield their children from it. Formulate goals together that are aligned with who they are.

 

2. Educate your child on perfectionism

 

Help your teen understand the true costs of perfectionism and overly self-critical thinking styles. Teach them to recognise and challenge negative thoughts and take a more self-compassionate approach.

 

3. Reward courage

 

By celebrating their courage to do something difficult (even if it’s just studying when they REALLY don’t want to) your child is more likely to do things that stretch their capability. Teach them that following their passions is more important than producing flawless work.

 

4. Celebrate “failing forwards”

Teach your child that making mistakes is safe by rewarding the growth that comes from making them. By sharing your own mistakes and how they’ve made you stronger, you can encourage them to step outside their comfort zone.

 

5. Let them know their worth does not depend on their performance

Check-in with your child with compassion and curiosity and be willing to adjust your expectations to ones that are aligned with them. Modelling self-compassion can also let them know that they deserve their own love and kindness regardless of their achievements.

 

6. Adopt the mantra “progress over perfection”

Rewarding effort will teach them that skills are built over time, instead of getting something right immediately. This will also help them realise that even though something’s not perfect, it can still be good enough.

 

7. Help them focus on what they can control

Focusing on things beyond their control can cause immense anxiety in a teenager. Instead, make “do your best, forget the rest” a fun household mantra to remind them to focus on their own efforts.

 

If Your Teen Doesn’t Want to Hear it From You

Talking to a teenager can be a lot like trying to train a cat. Sometimes, they’re just not interested.

 

At Flourish & Thrive, we use science-backed tools and compassionate support to help teens develop healthy confidence, resilience and self-worth. We also teach them coping techniques to manage stress in a healthy way and bulletproof their mental well-being.

 

If you’re concerned that perfectionism is impacting your child negatively, reach out to find out how we can help.

 

Wrapping Up

Adopting a healthy attitude towards striving will not only protect your teen’s mental health but actually help them achieve more, develop greater confidence and improve their performance.

 

If you see these traits in your child, don’t despair. By recognizing that a change is needed, you can teach your child to realise that their self-worth does not depend on their success.

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