Perfection. It’s everyone’s favorite “flaw.” Our admiration of perfection is so pervasive that it’s become an emblem of worth, wealth, and success. “I can’t help it. I’m a perfectionist,” is almost a mantra in the modern workplace. And, sadly, a mantra for many high-achieving teens.
According to Thomas Curran, a social psychologist who studies perfectionism and its impact on youth mental health, the pressure to be perfect has risen at an alarming rate during the last 25 years. “Perfectionism is rising as society is changing,” Curran says. “And a changed society reflects a changed sense of personal identity and, with it, differences in the way in which young people interact with each other and the world around them.”
In our digital culture where teens display their lives and lifestyles in vivid detail through social media, “the appearance of perfection is far more important than the reality,” according to Curran. Our dangerous obsession with perfection—and all its trappings—is only growing worse.
Closer to Home
Kids who live in a place like South Orange County can feel the pressure to be perfect in many aspects of their lives. There’s academic pressure to get into the best colleges, social pressure to look a certain way, and performance pressure to take athletic or artistic endeavors to stratospheric levels.
Sometimes our children put this intense pressure on themselves. It’s almost as if they’re born that way. Other times, the pressure comes from multiple directions—school, home, friends, and social media.
Perfectionism, according to the American Psychological Association, is “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” It can contribute to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use, and other mental health concerns. In short, perfectionism can be harmful to our children’s well-being.
So, what can we do to help our children escape the trap of perfection? “We can teach them that in a chaotic world, life will often defeat us, but that’s OK,” Curran says. “Failure is not weakness.”
We also can let them know that striving for excellence—not perfection—is a noble goal and that our failures often teach us our greatest life lessons.
“If we want our young people to enjoy mental, emotional, and psychological health,” Curran says, then we can “invite them to celebrate the joys and beauties of imperfection as a normal and natural part of everyday living and loving.”
Strategies to Help Balance Perfectionism
Here are six things you can do to help your child find balance and develop a healthier approach to life.
- Help them recognize what they can manage and cannot control.
- Encourage them to strive for excellence instead of perfection.
- Be careful with the expectations you put on your child.
- Be a role model. Be careful how you talk about your own performance at work, your appearance, or your judgment of others.
- Prioritize balance by having your child take study breaks, spend time with family and friends, and discover new things.
- Seek professional help if your child’s perfectionism is problematic.
Know the Signs of Problematic Perfection
Sometimes perfectionism can escalate into a very serious mental health disorder. Signs that perfectionism is becoming harmful include:
- frequent irrational thoughts about failures
- rigid, inflexible routines
- disproportionate reactions over seemingly insignificant failures
- inability to overcome setbacks
- symptoms of anxiety or depression
- panic attacks
- prolonged times to complete homework assignments
- social withdrawal or isolation
- makes comments about suicide or death after not getting a desired outcome for their effort(s)
- unusual demands about food arrangement, food measurement, or calorie counting could be signs of an eating disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder
Striving for excellence and perfectionism are not the same thing. While the former – effort toward an acceptable standard – can help your teen become a happy and successful adult, the latter – being perfect – can lead to harmful patterns of behavior, and possibly mental health concerns. By teaching your child the difference, you’ll help them find balance, learn from their failures, and set healthy and realistic goals.