It’s the start of a new school year. For healthy strivers—kids with big goals and high standards—this is a time of excitement, anticipating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. For perfectionists—kids with impossible expectations and intense fear of failure—this is a time of high anxiety.
How can you help your adolescent or college-age child be a healthy striver rather than a destructive perfectionist?
Perfectionism can cause your kid to be highly self-critical and super stressed about school assignments or social events. When you see your kid beating herself up about a tiny mistake or panicking about a simple homework assignment, it is very tempting to want to either fix the problem to end the stress, or tell her to stop worrying or being so hard on herself. After all, you kid is suffering, you want to help! While your intentions are wonderful, the message that perfectionist kids often get is “it’s not ok for you to be stressed or struggling right now.” So before you go to problem-solving, take some time to simply empathize: “I can tell you are really stressing right now, I’m so sorry, that’s really hard.”
Praise the journey, not the destination.
When you are congratulating, appreciating, or celebrating your kid, focus on creativity or effort instead of grades or scores. Same goes for those dinner-table questions—rather than “what grade did you get?” try asking your child what he liked about the project or performance. This helps kids understand that you value him for who he is, not what he can achieve.
Show them that mistakes are okay. How does your kid see you act when you make a mistake? Do you catastrophize or panic about the consequences (“I’m going to get fired!”)? Do you call yourself names (“I’m such an idiot!”)? Or maybe you avoid ever mentioning any failures, giving the impression that you never screw up. If your child hears you talking like a perfectionist, she might start talking to herself that way, too. Try modeling a healthy attitude toward mistakes by acknowledging disappointed feelings, noticing silver linings or learning opportunities, and celebrating resilience. Tell stories about how famous, accomplished people have made many mistakes on the road to success.
Teach the mind-body connection.
Many perfectionists believe they need to be critical and hard on themselves in order to stay motivated and keep achieving. They believe if they relax even a little, they will become lazy and fall behind. As a result, perfectionists often live in a state of perpetual stress, their sympathetic nervous systems activated all the time. The truth is, constant stress does not help anyone achieve. High levels of stress cause physiological changes in the brain, body, and nervous system that actually make it harder to think clearly. (It also increases negative thinking, anxiety, muscle tension, digestive problems, and other undesirable symptoms.) Make sure your kid knows some breathing exercises or other tools to reduce the physical impact of stress and perfectionism. (Download a free breathing exercise from Mindfulness for Teen Anger.)
Don’t get over-involved.
It’s normal to want to help your kid solve problems or get through tough spots, but too much help can interfere with your child’s problem-solving ability. Kids need to experience getting stuck and getting themselves out of it to develop competence, confidence, and resilience. In addition, being overinvolved signals to your kid that they aren’t good enough to handle situations on their own, and can increase self-criticism and fear of making mistakes. A recent study found that intrusive parenting has a direct link to perfectionist traits and related depression and anxiety symptoms.
Ann Marie Dobosz, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist specializing in helping people struggling with perfectionism, self-criticism, and anxiety. She sees teens and adults in her private practice in San Francisco, and is the author of The Perfectionist Workbook for Teens.