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Ages & Stages

What Creates Perfectionism

There may be a biological component to perfectionism as evidenced by its link to eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The information below focuses on those environmental factors that may contribute to or exacerbate perfectionism.

Inappropriate Praise

Carol Dweck and colleagues study the effect that praise and criticism have on performance and write about a “growth mindset” compared to a “fixed mindset.”

Growth Mindset

Young people with a growth mindset believe their intelligence can be developed with effort. When they do not produce desired results, they don’t see themselves as failures, but as learners.

People with a growth mindset want feedback because they understand they need others’ assessments to learn to do things better. Dweck writes, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”

Fixed Mindset

In contrast, people with a fixed mindset (including maladaptive perfectionists and others) believe people are either smart or not and failure proves you’re not. In fact, hard work suggests one doesn’t have natural intelligence. Their goal becomes to avoid failure at all costs since they need consistent feedback to affirm they’re smart. Dweck explains that people with a fixed mindset view situations from the prism of, “Will I succeed or fail?” “Will I look smart or dumb?” “Will I win or lose?” People with a growth mindset feel successful when they can do something they couldn’t do before, whereas those with fixed mindsets feel smart when they avoid errors.

Dweck’s research reveals that how a child is praised contributes heavily to whether she develops a growth versus fixed mindset. In brief, those praised for being smart are more likely to grow to fear being seen as anything else, and those noticed for effort develop a passion for growth.

Academic Pressures and a Competitive College Admissions Process

Parents and children alike see getting a college degree as important for long-term success and financial security. This often translates into external and internal pressure not simply to attain high grades and test scores, but also to build extensive resumes filled with impressive extra-curricular achievements. The competition is not limited to those applying to elite universities. Increases in the perceived importance of secondary education across society as well as the rising costs of tuition lead to anxiety among all students about competition for admission and scholarship dollars, especially in the context of difficult economic times.

Sensationalism of Success and Failure (i.e., Who Are Our Heroes?)

Our culture reveres success and ridicules failure. The heroes in our society tend to epitomize a perfect performance in their fields and are rewarded with the greatest external trappings of success. Whether the highest-scoring athlete, the top-grossing recording artist, or the most beautiful movie actress, our sports stars and entertainment figures receive enormous attention, especially when at the “top of their game.” When they have a transgression, the media quickly focuses on their problems. Youth receive the message that, to gain recognition, you must be at the top, and, once there, you had better not make a mistake.

Increase in a Permissive Style of Parenting

Permissive parents are very warm and supportive to their children but offer few boundaries or rules, often taking on a tone of “friendship” more than mentorship in their approach to parenting. The result is that teens’ behavioral control is achieved largely through their desire to please parents. Achieving perfection can ensure the child pleases his parents, especially if the definition of what counts as “acceptable” is not clear.

Fear of Disappointment

Many perfectionists have a strong desire to avoid disappointing their parents, especially when raised in a permissive parenting style as noted above. Others are driven by the fear of disappointing themselves. Children who see themselves as valuable only when achieving success may experience significant cognitive dissonance when trying to accept a failure or limitation in performance or abilities. As a result, they pursue perfectionism as a means to avoid disappointment at all costs.

Applying Professional Standards to Personal Parenting

Some parents highly prepared for the work world apply the same standards of efficiency, productivity, and performance to family life. When this happens, their children’s perceived successes or setbacks become markers of the parents’ own success. This may intensify stress on children either directly through parental pressure or through their own drive to please adults.

Desire to Spare Stressed Parents

Teens sometimes have an intense need to spare a parent whom they perceive as stressed. Children whose parents suffer from trauma, illness, or divorce may try to be perfect children. They may keep their own anxieties and struggles as tightly held secrets, always showing parents their best face. Parents who explicitly verbalize feelings of being overwhelmed to their children or who excessively rely on their children as confidants about adult problems could exacerbate this.

Edited by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP, FSAHM and Sara B. Kinsman, MD, PhD
Last Updated
Reaching Teens: Strength-based Communication Strategies to Build Resilience and Support Healthy Adolescent Development (Copyright © 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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