Avoiding the Perfectionism Trap: How To Protect the Mental Health of Achievement-Oriented Kids

A behavioral health expert explains how perfectionism can impact mental health in children, and how parents can help shift perfectionist tendencies into a healthy mindset.

Whether it’s keeping up with peers, family expectations, or social media feeds, children are feeling more pressure than ever to be the best at everything they do. Research shows that perfectionism, generally defined as striving for extremely high personal standards, is increasing among young people.

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to succeed in school, sports or other extracurricular activities, sometimes the internal and external stress of needing to achieve can have mental health ramifications. Add to that the psychological impacts of adolescents spending more time on social media — where carefully curated images often fuel the illusion of being perfect — and it’s no surprise that anxiety is now among the most common mental health disorders in children, affecting about one in 11 kids ages 3 to 17.

So how can parents and caregivers help children navigate the pressures of perfectionism and prevent it from becoming a source of stress and anxiety? Can parents help children develop a healthy mindset when it comes to success and failure?

“Instead of the idea of perfect, it’s the idea of finding a balance,” says Dr. Warren Ng, medical director of outpatient behavioral health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and director of clinical services for the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “Parents can help their kids celebrate their accomplishments but also embrace the fact that no one is perfect and that we can make mistakes and learn from them. The joy of learning is what is most important.”

Health Matters spoke to Dr. Ng about how perfectionism can impact youth, and how parents can help their children stop putting so much negative pressure on themselves that it can be counterproductive.

Dr. Warren Ng

Dr. Warren Y.K. Ng

How does perfectionism manifest in children?
Some children are hard-wired to feel motivated by their achievements and have an inner drive to be the best. Sometimes there can be parental and family pressure to succeed. But as school demands increase and other external factors come into play, perfectionist tendencies may not always lead to good academic performance and straight As. Some children may exhibit paralyzing anxiety or rigidity, have difficulty making decisions, become too detail oriented in their tasks, be afraid to make mistakes, or perhaps have lost the joy in things they used to love.

A bit of pressure can be helpful to motivate some youth to achieve their goals. However, if it becomes an “all-or-nothing” mentality, it can get obsessive and become an obstacle to getting things done. If a child is so focused on perfection that they sometimes cannot finish a project or complete their homework, or they feel like they are constantly failing, perfectionism may be more of a problem. They lose the joy of what they are doing.

Every young person has insecurities and self-doubt, but the pressures of perfectionism can be experienced more intensely if a child is struggling with other issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma.

Signs of Perfectionism in Children

  • Has high expectations of themselves
  • May be very sensitive to criticism
  • Is overly detailed and preoccupied with things being a certain way
  • Gets frustrated easily when things are not perfect
  • May develop low self-esteem or become self-critical
  • Has a hard time receiving praise for their efforts
  • Compares themselves to others with self-criticism
  • Struggles with a sense of failure or inadequacy
  • Worries about making mistakes

What factors can contribute to perfectionism?
Developmentally, it’s important for youth to learn about themselves in relation to their peer groups, so peers may also influence a child’s idea of perfectionism. Some children may seek other peers who are similarly driven by perfectionism, and that can intensify the competitive role that perfectionism plays in their self-image. On the other hand, peers can provide a different perspective — that it’s OK not to be perfect — and that can help a young person be more balanced.

We also know that social media is a factor. Most young people only post their best moments on social media, or post altered images of themselves, creating a distorted sense of what is normal. Parents should take some time to learn about what their child is exposed to and how they are feeling and thinking. Always offer curiosity in learning from them what their world is like. Some families also choose to develop a family plan around social media so that there are values-based limits and expectations. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Common Sense Media, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offer resources to help families manage and understand social media use.

Sometimes parents or teachers use the word “perfect”, but they should emphasize that learning is a process and making mistakes is an important part of that.

How should parents encourage balance and a healthy mindset?
It’s helpful for parents to first check their own expectations and think about what it means to be successful and share a more balanced idea of that. Success is never just limited to academic achievement, and emphasizing the joy of learning is more important. Every young person is different and may have different strengths and vulnerabilities. It’s also about having a healthy outlook and having friends and relationships to help balance your perspectives.

Second, praise is important. No matter what, if your child tries their best, they should be praised and acknowledged. Self-esteem and a positive self-image are crucial, and parents are in a unique position to help empower their children to be their best and achieve their goals and dreams.

Third, help them celebrate the joys of learning and focus less on the outcome — in other words, “Do their best and learn from the rest.” We can’t always win or succeed. Life would be so monotonous if we always succeeded because we would have nothing to learn.

If we want children to learn and grow from their mistakes, then don’t call them failures, call them learning opportunities. Failures are valuable experiences and are beginnings, not endings. They can be the start of learning about what happened, trying again, or deciding to do something else with what we’ve learned. Also, sharing a time when you’ve failed and what you’ve learned from it is important to help dispel the myth of perfection. That helps teach youth the gifts of humility and perseverance.

Finally, help them develop coping skills when they are disappointed. These skills will serve them well in life. It can take time before a child feels comfortable with mistakes and not always meeting their goals. But parents can also support them by handling feelings or disappointment in the moment, whether that’s validating their feelings, encouraging them to talk to you or their friends, or writing about it.

How can parents help perfectionist kids manage stress in high-pressure situations, like a high school or college application process?
Applying to school can be very overwhelming for young people and their families. We can’t perpetuate the idea that any school determines the total future or success of anyone. It is just one step along the path, and although it can be an important step, there are also many other ways that we can achieve our goals.

What can a parent do if they’re concerned about anxiety or other mental health disorders?
First, sit down and ask open-ended questions. Try not to ask “You’re OK, right?” Instead, say “I care about you and I really want to know, how you are doing? Let’s make some time together because you are important to me.” It may be different from what you are imagining. Listen for indications that they are having a hard time sleeping, getting things done, enjoying the things they usually love, concentrating, or remembering things. As with perfectionism, there are times when anxiety can help us get something done. But when it gets in the way of starting, doing, or completing things, then it’s time to take a closer look. It may have crossed the line from helpful to harmful. You may also want to ask someone at school if there is anything else going on that could be impacting your child and how this is affecting their schoolwork.

If your child is experiencing a lot of worries, anxieties, or fears that are getting in the way of their studying or doing their homework, or they are having panic attacks or avoiding school,  speak to their pediatrician and get the help of a mental health professional, who can help determine what additional help your child would benefit from. Beginning with a mental health evaluation, a more comprehensive treatment plan can be developed.

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