Is Your Teen a Perfectionist? Here’s How To Help

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A perfect score. A perfect game. A perfect love.

Society consistently tells us to strive for perfection. Most of us are aware that perfect doesn’t exist — or that it’s too subjective to be measurable. But for the perfectionists among us, perfect is the only acceptable standard, and anything short is a disappointment. Anything short is a failure.

It’s an extreme way to move through life, with no grace for mistakes. If left unchecked, perfectionism can lead to a variety of physical and emotional issues, including depression, eating disorders and, in the worst cases, suicide, Gordon Flett, one of the world’s leading researchers on perfectionism, told The Washington Post. And perfectionism isn’t limited to adults. In the last few years, perfectionism has been impacting our teens at ever-increasing rates.

A study from the American Psychological Association found that the “drive to be perfect in body, mind, and career among today’s college students has significantly increased compared with prior generations, which may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health.”

Researchers have a variety of theories as to what’s behind the rise in perfectionism among young people — including social media — but ultimately, for parents who are seeing signs of perfectionism in their teens, the why of the problem comes second to the question of how to help.

Identify When Perfectionism Arises

From a distance, perfectionists look a lot like high achievers. Both succeed in classical ways; both work hard to achieve big goals. For that reason, it can be difficult for parents to determine whether their teen is actually a perfectionist, and struggling with all the issues perfectionists face.

According to Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd. Founder, Center for Parent and Teen Communication at CHOP and author of Congrats – You’re Having a Teen!, the distinction lies in the child’s mindset and ability to accept failure.

Perfectionists “fear failure,” Dr. Ginsburg tells SheKnows. “They don’t have a growth mindset and are not willing to take chances. When they experience a success, they don’t revel in it but instead focus on what didn’t go well.” High achievers, on the other hand, “celebrate their success. They have a growth mindset, meaning they know taking chances is the way to reach their highest level of success … and that only happens when you’re comfortable with failure and understand that’s an opportunity for growth.”

Dr. Ginsburg encourages parents to look for signs of anxiety — symptoms like nervous stomach, poor sleep, and falling apart when things don’t go well — as well as signs that your child is afraid to fail, is focusing on what they’re doing wrong rather than well, and is focusing so hard on achievement that it’s impacting other areas of their life.

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