No human is perfect. This sentiment seems simple enough. However, when raising a teen, we consider the input our teenage sons and daughters receive from peers, social media, and school expectations, the idea of being imperfect can be equated to being unsuccessful.
If your teen has begun to believe that the only way to have a “happy life” is to over-achieve in all of their endeavors, they may be suffering from perfectionism.
One aspect of modern life that has exacerbated this issue is social media. Imagine for a moment that you believed all the material you consumed on social media. You are left to assume things like, “Gosh, everyone is having fun except for me.” Or “I can only post when I do something great. I can’t share when I fail.” When we omit sharing failures with others, we omit our ability to be flawed and human.
Another area that I see perfectionism running rampant is around the topic of “college acceptance.” So many teens are fearful that unless they have a resume a mile long that they will not be accepted to a good college.
I understand this fear and some of it is valid. However, if the process is making your teen emotionally sick, it might be out of balance.
I see many teen girls that are straight-A students, who excessively work out while participating in several extracurricular activities as well as maintaining a social and family life. It is important to note that there is nothing wrong with any of these endeavors unless achieving all of them is causing mental suffering.
As a parent, it can be difficult to discern if your son or daughters is striving perfectionism or if they are just highly capable and well-adjusted in their endeavors.
Here are some questions to help you determine if the aim for perfectionism is problematic:
- Are they able to tolerate getting a low grade?
- Do they have rigid rules about their daily life? (i.e. “I have to exercise at least 1 hour a day or I have to ____.)
- If they fail at something they set out to do, do they assume that they are a failure?
- Do they hide their flaws from most people or even post things that are not true to make themselves appear more successful?
- Do they easily criticize others when they are successful?
If you feel like your teen is struggling to appear perfect in most areas of their life, most of the time, there is hope.
Remember that the family is the most important place for a teen to practice imperfection. So as a parent, you can play a large role in helping your teen overcome the urge to maintain a “perfect” life.
Here are 6 tips for raising a teenage perfectionist:
1. Look at your own perfectionist side.
Before you can speak with your teen, begin to explore your own tendencies towards perfectionism. Try to be brutally honest with yourself.
In what ways can you relate to what your child is striving for? Use this material for step 2.
2. Engage your teen in a conversation about perfectionism.
This is important!
First, reveal your own areas of struggle around this topic…even if they are small. By being vulnerable and sharing how you have human desires to have your life “all together”, you are a living example of imperfection.
If they choose to share their thoughts with you, listen without judgment.
Judgment is one of the most compelling reasons that people become perfectionistic. They do not want others viewing them negatively.
4. Validate their viewpoint…even if you do not agree with it.
This does not mean that you have to believe as they believe. The point of this is to help neutralize any fear they may have around opening up to you or anyone else, emotionally.
5. Allow mistakes to happen.
Let them know you encourage them to make mistakes. It’s how you learn and grow.
6. Let them quit.
Give them permission to drop some activities or expectations if needed. Doing too much can result in burnout.
If you try these steps and you see your teen still struggling, you can reach out for professional help around this topic.
Kristen Mennona is a licensed professional counselor, a board certified dance/movement therapist, a certified eating disorder specialist (CEDS), and a certified specialist in pediatric OCD. To learn more, visit her website.