Dealing with a perfectionistic teen can be both frustrating and heartbreaking all at the same time. Here are tips to help when raising a perfectionist.
My daughter came home on on the last day of her first week of first grade and set her school folder with all her school work on counter. She opened the folder and then took out one paper after another, tore each one in half, and threw it in the trash.
I was so confused and couldn’t figure out what in the world was going on. I stopped her in the middle of this process much to her outrage.
“What are you doing?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm and even.
“I did bad.” she said.
As I fished a few of the papers out of the trash I saw a 97 and a 95.
“How are these bad?” I questioned her. “These are excellent grades, you did well!”
She stood her ground, just staring at me with this look I couldn’t quite define. I clearly didn’t understand. So, I looked at what was left in her school folder. There I discovered several remaining graded papers with a perfect 100.
I found my answer.
This was the first time that actual grades were given in her school career and in her eyes, anything that didn’t have a 100% was only worthy of the trash. I was stunned and didn’t know how to react at first. I had seen a few other signs of perfectionism in her. She would get easily frustrated sometimes when we did art and it wasn’t quite as good as she was expecting. She wasn’t a fan of playing board games, because she could only enjoy it if she won and there were often tears when she lost.
But overall, she was a pretty happy and easy going kid up to this point. I tried to explain to her that the grades on the papers she was throwing away were still “A’s” and an A of any kind is fantastic. I told her I was proud that she was doing this well already and she should be too.
She wasn’t having it. She stomped off to her bedroom crying. And this would be far from the last time this type of behavior would occur. Over the years, my daughter continued to display strong perfectionistic tendencies. She often didn’t want to try new activities if she wasn’t confident she would excel at them. She got easily frustrated at things she couldn’t master quickly. And then as she got into the early tween years the comparisons started. She was constantly benchmarking herself against her peers in school, at her extra-curricular activities, socially. If she wasn’t at the level of whoever she deemed to be the best, then she felt like she was failing. In many cases, it was all or nothing in her mind.
As her parent, this was of course an emotional roller coaster ride for me as well.
I wondered if her father and I had done things or said things that made her think that we expected perfection. But ultimately we learned over time as we sought out many resources to help us to help her, that this was just how she was wired. The fact that he and I were both type A with our own forms of perfectionistic personalities probably contributed to the genetics of it all. But we hadn’t don’t anything wrong as parents that caused this. It was what it was. Nature won out over nurture in this case.
If you are dealing with a perfectionistic tween or teen, I feel your pain because it can make you angry, said, frustrated and more than anything heartbroken. Because the crazy thing about perfectionist kids is that they are often amazing at so many things, but they don’t feel that way. We just wish they could see themselves though our eyes. So, what do you?
How can you be a better parent to teens put so much pressure on themselves?
Well for starters, I learned quickly what NOT to do. Let’s quickly return to the story I told a little earlier regarding my daughter and the disposing of her less than perfect scoring papers. My attempt in that moment to try to get her to see reason and to convince her that she really had done well was a HUGE MISTAKE.
When a perfectionist is melting down and feels like they are inadequate the last thing you want to do is tell them that their feelings are wrong. That hadn’t been my intent, but that’s what my words, my actions and even my tone had communicated to her. This only made matters worse and made her feel worse, because she felt unseen and unheard. Watching her tear up and throw away those papers may have seemed crazy to me, but it was a reaction to how she felt. And we all know, feelings aren’t always rational.
As she got older and we entered the tween and teen years, I understood better that as parents, when our kids are having uncomfortable feelings, we feel uncomfortable and our gut instinct is to step in and try to “fix” things. But we need to give our tweens and teens a chance to process those big emotions. Then you can step in and discuss what thoughts led to those feelings and how they might be able to reframe it in a more positive way.
Ultimately, perfectionism can be a positive trait when it drives tweens and teens to strive for excellence and achieve their goals. However, it can also lead to negative consequences when it becomes all-consuming and interferes with our tweens and teens well-being. In fact, the teen years can be particularly brutal for perfectionists, because teenagers are still developing their sense of self and may be more vulnerable to the pressure of societal expectations.
If you have a teenager struggling with perfectionism, here are some practical ways you can help:
Encourage them to reframe their thinking
Encourage the teenager to focus on effort and progress rather than perfection. Remind them that it is okay to make mistakes and that they can learn from them. Emphasize that the goal is to improve, not to be perfect.
Promote a growth mindset
Help the teenager develop a growth mindset by encouraging them to embrace challenges, embrace learning from mistakes, and view failure as an opportunity for growth. Share your own stories of failure and what you gained from these experiences. You could even look up stories of other notable people they make look up to in the public eye.
Foster healthy coping mechanisms
Encourage the teenager to engage in healthy coping mechanisms such as physical activity, mindfulness, and stress-management techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga. Often perfectionistic teens spend too much time in their head and activities that encourage them to stop obsessive thinking and ruminating can be a game changer. The earlier they learn these coping techniques, the more they will benefit them now and in the future.
Discuss unrealistic expectations
Discuss unrealistic expectations and help your teenager understand that no one is perfect and that it is not possible or healthy to strive for perfection in every aspect of life. Talk with them about what would be more reasonable when it comes to what they want and hope to achieve.
Encourage the teenager to limit comparisons with others and focus on their own personal growth and progress. Remind them that everyone is unique and has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Set realistic and achievable goals
Help the teenager set realistic and achievable goals and celebrate their progress along the way. This can help to reduce the stress and pressure associated with perfectionism. Don’t be surprised if they really think that their expectations are normal. They often don’t have the life experience to understand what is realistic or not.
Encourage the teenager to prioritize self-care, including regular exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep. Explain that taking care of their physical and mental health is important for overall well-being and can help reduce the stress and pressure associated with perfectionism.
Provide support and encouragement
Be there for the teenager, listen to their concerns, and offer support and encouragement. Validate their feelings and help them understand that it is okay to feel overwhelmed at times. It can be so tempting to lecture our teens and try to take over and “fix” things for them. But what they need most from us is that we listen and that we’re always their biggest cheerleaders.
Seek professional help
If the teenager’s perfectionism is severely impacting their daily life and well-being, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. A therapist can provide additional support and tools to help the teenager manage their perfectionism and improve their well-being.
Related: Mental Health Resources for Teens
Helping a teenager struggling with perfectionism requires a supportive and non-judgmental approach. Teaching them to reframe their thinking, promoting a growth mindset, fostering healthy coping mechanisms, and providing support and encouragement can all help to reduce the impact of perfectionism on their daily life and well-being. But again, if the teenager’s perfectionism is severely impacting their daily life, seek professional help for the best possible outcome.
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
Raising teens and tweens is hard, but these popular posts that other parents found helpful just might make it a little easier.
Books To Help Teens Who Struggle With Perfectionism:
What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient WomenA Perfectionist’s Guide to Not Being PerfectPerfectionism: A Practical Guide to ManagingThe Perfectionism Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Reduce Anxiety and Get Things DoneThe Perfectionism Journal: Guided Prompts and Mindfulness Practices to Reduce Anxiety and Find Calm
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