By: Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS, Ed, FAAP
Every parent wants their child to be successful in life. But young people sometimes set excessively high standards for themselves. If something they do isn't flawless, they may become overly self-critical. Their pursuit of perfection can become unhealthy and actually interfere with what they want to accomplish.
As adolescents face the challenges of growing up, we can prepare them to be high achievers rather than perfectionists. Here's why that's a better approach to success and tips that can help.
The problem with perfectionism
Unhealthy or "maladaptive" perfectionism is associated with a host of physical and mental health challenges among teens, such as:
High achievement versus perfectionism
Perfectionism can also interfere with a teen's future success. A perfectionist's fear of failure may be greater than the joy of success. They may see mistakes and constructive criticism as proof that they're unworthy. Praise from others may raise suspicion because they feel like imposters, whose faults remain undiscovered.
More limiting, the thought of not doing well may prevent them from thinking outside the box, limiting their creative and innovative potential. Fear of failure may cause them to avoid a task entirely or go out of their way to seem indifferent about it.
In contrast, healthy high achievers aren't satisfied until they've done their best and prove
resilient when they fall short of perfection. Healthy high achievers enjoy the process and excitement as they work their hardest. They see mistakes as opportunities for growth and failures as temporary setbacks. They value constructive criticism as informative, look for creative solutions and are willing to take healthy risks.
5 ways to help your child avoid unhealthy perfectionism
Here are some ways you can help your child or teen avoid or overcome the negative effects of perfectionism:
Give effective praise & criticism
Grow a growth mindset.
Research shows how praise and criticism can lead to a "fixed mindset," rather than a healthier "growth mindset." For example:
- Children praised for being smart are more likely to grow to fear being seen as anything else, while those noticed for effort develop a passion for growth.
- Young people with a growth mindset believe their intelligence can be developed with effort. When they don't do something as well as they hoped, they don't see themselves as failures, but as learners. In contrast, people with a fixed mindset (including perfectionists) may believe people are either smart or not, and that failure proves you're not. They may even believe that having to work hard at something suggests a lack of natural intelligence.
- 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.
To help your child build a growth mindset, praise the effort, rather than the product. For example, instead of saying,
"I just expect you to do your best," say something like:
"All I expect is for you to put in a good effort. I care less about your grades and more about the fact that you are learning," or
"Some things come easily to me, and with even a little effort, I will always do well. In other subjects, I might work really hard and still not do as well as I wish I could. But all I want from you is to stretch yourself and learn."
Focus on the process rather than the outcome. You can ask your teen questions like,
This can help teens learn from their own imperfect experiences without internalizing negativity. Then, they can make meaningful changes to improve the process (and possibly outcome) in the future.
Value balance, self-care & opportunities for self-discovery
Talk about the costs of perfectionism on emotional and physical health. You can discuss that just because you can, doesn't mean that you always should. Help your child work toward the balance in managing the tasks of daily life. Time and energy are limited resources. Extra time spent on a project may mean giving up needed sleep, exercise or time connecting with friends.
Learn to prune. Extracurricular activities can enrich learning, but children also need self-driven play and downtime to discover their passions and skills. When teens feel overwhelmed, they can't focus on anything or learn where they need to excel. Don't view the need to cut back on extra activities as "quitting," but instead as "pruning." When they can prune away what no longer interests them, their strongest interests and greatest talents will flourish.
Express unconditional acceptance
Use the best antidote to an unhealthy sense of perfectionism: unconditional acceptance. The most essential ingredient in raising resilient children and teens is the connections you form when you love or accept your children unconditionally and hold them to high but reasonable expectations. High expectations should not focus on grades or performance, but rather effort, integrity, generosity, empathy and other core values.
Model self-acceptance by presenting a "human" face to your children. You teach them humility and self-respect when they see you admit and correct a mistake or failing. On the other hand, beating yourself up for less than perfect achievement or talent sets kids up to accept nothing less from themselves. Acknowledge your own limitations while celebrating your strengths, and your children likely will do the same.
Define success & recognize realistic heroes
Whether the highest scoring athlete, the top-grossing recording artist or the most beautiful social media influencer, celebrities receive attention at the top of their game. Young people receive the message that recognition requires perfection. You can help counteract that message:
Clarify and communicate your views of success. Here are some you can consider:
Happiness, as well as contentment
Commitment to hard work, determination and perseverance
Compassion and empathy
Desire to contribute
Capacity to build and maintain meaningful relationships
Being able to collaborate and work well with others
Respect for diversity
Creativity and innovative potential
Capacity to accept and learn from constructive criticism
Being accountable for your actions and making amends when needed
Point out the real heroes all around us—those who choose to teach and heal, as well as those who choose to protect us and serve our communities and nation. Point out
acts of kindness they witness among neighbors, friends and family When children see realistic heroes and hear positive messages about the actions of real, accessible people, they learn a broader definition of success within which they, too, can feel valued.
Ask your teen never to "spare" you from their feelings
Teens notice when parents are stressed and may not want to add to your worries with their concerns. Children and teens whose parents experience trauma, illness or divorce/separation, for example, may try to be "perfect" children. They may keep their own anxieties and struggles as tightly held secrets by always showing you their best face. Confiding in them about being overwhelmed or adult problems can make this worse.
Assure your teen that although you might be concerned, your greatest pleasure and most important job is to be there for them as their parent. You may say something like,
"I know you want to protect me from more worries, and I appreciate how much you care about me. But the one thing I want to do right now more than anything is to be your parent. Please let me do that. I want to always be there for you."