Is your teen being crippled by perfectionism? Here's what you can do about it.
This weekend, I need you to take me to three practices, two study groups, and volunteering.
A 4.0 is not good enough…my GPA has to be over a 4.5.
I think I’ll take the SAT just one more time.
Sound like your teenager?
Commitment is admirable, but the overscheduled, overworked student of today can take the focus too far. Can you blame them?
School is the ultimate breeding ground for unhealthy levels of perfectionism. Look around high school hallways and into the corners of every university library and you’ll observe high achievers plugging away to win at the perfect game.
The truth that we all know, though, is that none of them will win in the end.
Perfectionism kills dreams. Plain and simple. If you’ve ever had the experience of postponing a project because you can’t seem to get it just right, you may already understand how this happens. No doubt you don’t want your children to succumb to this habit, which is really just a form of procrastination. You’d prefer they have the confidence to move towards their passions with no fear of getting it “wrong”….am I right?
If your teenager sees nothing but the straight-A obsession that is being reinforced by the academic system, they’ll find it hard to want any other path. The result is that they won’t get to enjoy their high school and college years, because they’re missing out on social activities and plain old leisure time in order to maintain an exhausting level of achievement.
There are even more grave consequences of the constant pressure students experience. Striving for perfection depletes them physically and makes them more prone to long-term suffering from conditions like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. If excessive homework and studying causes your child to lose sleep, they are already in a danger zone when it comes to mental and physical health.
You may see these effects and agree that the pressure to perform is too great. But you’ve tried to help your teen relax in the past, to no avail.
So what’s the answer?
It’s less concrete than you would think. It's not about getting your child more tutoring or staying up late with them to help them study. Those may be meaningful displays of parental solidarity, but they don’t quite touch the heart of the matter.
Your child needs to know they are already perfect, with or without perfect grades. Tell them this, in no uncertain terms. All the time.
There’s a trick to this, though. You have to believe it.
You’ll first have to overcome your own fear of your child’s performance reflecting negatively on you. Really and truly, why do we want our kids to do well in school? It’s partly because we want to see them succeed in the future, and this is how our society has told us they can achieve that. But there’s also a deeper want. We want to feel we have a raised a “good” child.
Before you advise your teen about letting go of their perfectionistic ways, I suggest taking a good hard look at your own. It’s no surprise that children model our behavior. Just like it’s necessary to put down your phone when you’re trying to get your child to do the same, this has to be a dual effort.
Let go of perfectionism with them. When you look your teen in the eyes and tell them they are okay and loved without the long list of achievements, things transform. They transform. Your words mean more than any grade or diploma.
Instead of mindlessly transferring to your child the things you think you’re supposed to value, and running them around from activity to activity without breathing, take a moment to consider the message you’re sending.
What quality of life do you want your child to have in five or ten years? A stressed out teen becomes a stressed out adult. The overwhelmed state will become comforting and habitual for them if they never know there is another way.
There will always be papers to write and exams to take. Your child only has a choice about how to deal with the workload. Until the education system catches up with what you know as a parent — that more is not always better, managing your child’s emotional health will largely fall on you.
The good news is that you’re a pro already. You’ve handled tantrums and upsets throughout your child’s life with the unique grace of a parent. Having a high school or college student may feel like a different game than the early years, but they truly need the same things they always did from you.
The even better news is that you don’t have to handle it alone! If the academic part of your teenager’s life and the stress that comes along with it is just not in your wheelhouse, don’t worry. I can support you and your child during this critical, and oftentimes fragile, stage of life.
Let’s chat about what is worrying you and your child when it comes to homework, standardized tests, or the next steps in school. Click below to reach out and schedule a conversation with me.
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