Struggling for perfection

Nobody’s perfect but some teens think they should be

Perfection – having all of the desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; to be as good as it is possible to be. Many of the kids we are seeing in mental health practices live and breathe these words.     

For some, the desire for perfection is self-induced, driven by a temperament that seeks constant betterment. For others, striving to be perfect is externally produced, coming from parents, teachers, peers or social media.

Subtle and not-so-subtle messages are introduced to our children from a young age. Parents face the drive to be perfect the minute they find out they’re pregnant – what to eat, what to buy and what they can do to create a happy, intelligent human. It is not surprising then that the minute our children are born, they are receiving messages about how to be better, healthier, smarter or more successful.

Academic rigor, extracurricular activities, regulated screen time, scheduled play dates. Be a good student. Be a good friend. Be a good athlete. Be a star!

The pressure we feel to be the Best. Parents. Ever. has trickled down to our kids. Some children start exhibiting anxious behavior as early as elementary school.

By the time many of the kids reach my office, the idea of perfection is ingrained in their identity. And anyone that expects perfection will struggle when this ideal cannot be met. It is this juncture of life, the time when the perfection paradigm meets imperfect life that the crisis begins. For some, this crisis can be life-changing. And what could be worse for a child that expects to be perfect than to fall apart.

This issue has resulted in higher rates of anxiety, depression, social isolation and suicides. From the first day of freshman year students are told that they need to do well to get into a good college to be successful. Competition is pressed upon them, setting up a schedule of AP and honors classes to not only increase GPA and class rank, but also to impress colleges. The messages they are getting are filled with words that promote expectations to be their best and nothing less.

There is no room for down time, boredom, creative and organic exploration or failure. No social or emotional intelligence is imparted, as all time is assessed by a letter grade, a medal or some form of recognition of being the best.

So how do we give kids the space to fail, learn and grow socially and emotionally and give our kids support to just be? It starts with us. It starts with the expectations we have for ourselves and our kids, as well as our own definition of perfection and failure. It starts with us as parents recognizing our mistakes and talking with our children about them. It starts with us nurturing and supporting our children through their mistakes and challenges and allowing them to fail.

If you are a parent of a child struggling with the need for perfection, communicate, check in and keep an eye on them. Many of these kids will weather the storm well, but some will not. Given that they feel they need to be perfect, many of these adolescents will not show their struggles, as showing stress is failure.

Connect your child with a mentor or a professional who can talk through their thoughts and stressors in a healthy manner and monitor your thoughts and messages as a parent. And seek support of professionals or other parents to help normalize your parenting journey. 

Tracey Tucker is Executive Director of New Heights: Adventures for Teens and a licensed mental health counselor at Tradeport Counseling Associates in Portsmouth.

More Parenting in the Moment columns by Tracey Tucker

At the finish line

Senior year is perilous for both students and parents

The push and pull of letting go

Managing the many emotions you will have when your child leaves home

Transitioning from teen to adult

How to navigate the changes ahead

Supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered teens

Support for youth revealing their sexual orientation is critical
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