Perfectionism is a struggle that affects more of our teens today than in previous generations. Perfectionism is striving to flawlessly excel at the highest levels. Teens understand logically that perfection is unattainable. Yet there is an emotional component to perfectionism. Emotions don’t have to be logical or make sense and can create irrational impressions or feelings that drive a teen’s thinking and actions. Perfectionism can leave a teen feeling inadequate, worthless, and hopeless if they make a mistake or fail to achieve at the perfectionistic level.
Factors that Lead to Teen Perfectionism
Not every teen experiences perfectionism. The conditions have to be right and can include the teen’s temperament, personality makeup, social and familial factors, and other influences. The following are some of the factors that can lead a teen to perfectionistic tendencies:
According the American Psychological Association (APA), teens report as much stress as adults report. But, when school is in session, teens report more stress than adults report. We find that some teens we see are ‘working’ longer hours during the week than their own parents (and most other parents):
- Waking up at 5:00 a.m. to attend swim practice in the morning then heading off to school can create a full day
- Many teens also have after-school academic or other extracurricular activities
- Some teens also work part-time jobs on top of this
- Many teens find themselves getting home for the day around 6:00-8:00 in the evening
- But the work day for them is not over. In order to keep up on their school work, many teens are up until 11:00-12:00 at night cramming to get their homework finished
- Then, after getting around 5-7 hours of sleep, the cycle starts anew
Excessive Pressure to Excel
There is a new category of “at risk” teens in today’s world. An at-risk teen is one whose environment increases their risk of not successfully transitioning into adulthood. Currently, teens are at risk if they are:
- Living in poverty
- Living in foster care
- Those with parents who are in jail, etc.
Added to the categories that would result in a teen being at risk are those teens that:
- Live in affluent areas
- Attending a high achieving public or private school with high standardized test scores
- Varied extracurricular and academic activities offered
- Experience pressure to attend top colleges and universities
Focus on Material Wealth
There is more pressure for teens today to succeed than there has been in past generations. American’s born in the 1980’s report that getting rich is their most important life goals. This is an increase of 20% from those born in the 1960’s. Teens today feel more pressure to graduate in the top percentile of their class to be accepted into the top universities.
Today, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), it is estimated that 2 out of every 5 minutes is spent online using social media. Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat and other popular social media sites take up much of our teen’s time.
These platforms often portray a ‘perfect’ image or presentation of someone’s life. Images posted tend not to reflect the reality of a person’s life but an idealized image that they would like to portray.
Studies have shown that exposure to these perfect, self-representations increase teen anxiety. Trying to match our own inner and outward realities to someone’s presentation of perfection increases a teen’s striving for that ideal perfection.
Signs & Symptoms of Perfectionism
There are signs and symptoms of teen perfectionism that parents can look out for. Some of the signs and symptoms are:
- Feelings of being a failure when mistakes are made
- Not happy with quality of work even when it’s high quality work
- Does not risk asking questions in front of others (e.g., in a classroom) due to fear of being wrong
- Takes constructive feedback hard or personally
- Overly focused on neatness of the work they produce
- May start work over repeatedly in order to get it just right
- Difficulty relaxing and often feeling keyed up or on edge
- Overly focused on grades, athletics, or other pursuits of perfection
- Procrastination due to fear of making a mistake or not achieving at the level desired
It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of perfectionism in teens. Perfectionism left untreated can lead to other emotional or behavioral problems for the teen.
Emotional & Behavioral Problems Influenced by Perfectionism
The Pew Research Center shows that teen depression has increased 59% since 2007. This same survey showed that 20% of teen girls have experienced a depressive episode in the past 12 months. Only 7% of teen boys reported experiencing a depressive episode in the past 12 months.
Another study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) also showed an increase in teen mental health struggles. During the 2005-2018 time frame, teen anxiety, depression, and substance use problems increased by 20%. The same study found problems with suicidal thoughts or attempts increased by 63.3%.
Perfectionism can lead a teen to experience low self-esteem. Teens who experience struggles with body image often have perfectionism as a driving factor. Hopelessness can result in a teen who struggles with perfectionism. Since perfection is impossible to attain, it sets the teen up for:
- Panic attacks
- Body image struggles
- Substance use or abuse
It is not uncommon to hear of a teen who has committed suicide who on the outside, appeared to have everything. This teen may have come from an affluent family. They were in the top 5% of their school for academics. They played on competitive sports teams and on the school team. They had many friends and were liked by many.
Yet, teens who experience perfectionism are living under a heavy load of their own internal expectations. These teens feel that they cannot measure up, are letting others around them down, and are a disappointment to others.
Perfectionism isn’t a logical struggle but an emotional struggle. If it was a logical struggle then the facts of a certain situation would resolve the struggle. Since it is emotionally based, the facts tend to not resolve the perfectionism. There are things that parents can do to help.
What Can We as Parents Do to Help?
Some things that parents can do to help their teen who is experiencing perfectionism is to:
- Help the teen to set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic, and Time bound
- Help reframe mistakes or ‘failures’ as successes as these point to areas of potential areas of growth
- Help the teen to expand their understanding to incorporate others who have made mistakes, have failed when they tried, yet have been successful and happy human beings
- Help them focus on ‘eating the elephant’ one bite at a time. Help them break down larger projects into smaller, digestible bites
- Practice empathy and refrain from placing exceedingly high expectations and pressure on your teen. The expectation to succeed and excel is good. But, too much of a good thing can hurt and if there is high pressure or exceedingly high expectations, this can be harmful
The above can help a teen overcome perfectionistic tendencies towards life. Yet, if you have attempted the above and your teen continues to struggle, there is hope. Therapists who specialize in working with teens can help your teen overcome perfectionism.
Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Teaming Up with Brittni Persha Counseling to Help Your Teen Overcome Perfectionism
If your teen is struggling with perfectionism there is help available. The therapists at Katy Teen & Family Counselingspecialize in providing therapy for teens and family counseling. Several therapists @ BPC also specialize in therapy for teens.
If you would like to start counseling for teen perfectionism, you can follow these three simple steps:
- Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling for more information about their therapy services
- For more information about Brittani Persha Counseling Teen Therapy Services schedule a free phone consultation today
- Start the journey in helping your teen overcome perfectionism, providing a path forward for a happy, successful future
About the Author
Jason Drake is a Licensed Clinical Worker. He is a Specialist in Teen Therapy & Family Counseling. He is a BCIA neurofeedback professional and trained in EMDR. He has been helping teens overcome perfectionism and other struggles since 2003.
Through his expertise, he also helps teens who struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD/ADD, and PTSD. He works with talented teen athletes who have experience mental blocks. Gifted students have unique challenges that Jason understands well. Jason uses CBT, EMDR, Neurofeedback, FFT, and Motivational Interviewing.
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, our focus is on providing therapy to teens and families which allows us to focus on what teens and families of today need. Resolving the struggles of today can assure a more successful tomorrow. Proudly serving Katy, Tx and Houston.