Four Ways Parents Can Help Perfectionist Teens Get Out of Their Own Way

Maggie was worried about her 14-year-old daughter Mira’s perfectionist tendencies. Every day, they battled it out. Mira erased her work so many times she left holes in her papers. She wouldn’t power down her computer until her work was triple-checked, which often was after midnight. As a result, she was chronically tired and irritable. Her fixation on grades was turning off her friends, and she was starting to feel excluded.

Despite the negative repercussions, Maggie couldn’t persuade Mira that her behavior was getting in her way. Maggie was frustrated and wanted my perspective as a school counselor. How could she help her daughter loosen up? 

Developmentally, adolescents are preoccupied with their emerging identity and whether they are good enough. They don’t want to disappoint their parents or teachers. Although it’s difficult to combat perfectionist tendencies, parents aren’t helpless. Here are four ways you can encourage your teen to tolerate mistakes and take chances.

1.    Model healthy risk-taking and don’t be self-critical
Are you tough on yourself? Your kids are watching and listening. If you model self-acceptance and tolerate your mistakes, they will be more likely to forgive their own. Don’t be subtle about it. If you forget to fax your boss a document or miss a meeting, tell your child. Acknowledge that you’re a fallible human being and that you can recover from setbacks. 
Tell your kids when you try something that’s outside your comfort zone. When you take chances and allow yourself to look foolish, you demonstrate that mistakes are learning opportunities. As they take more risks and see that the world continues to spin, they may ease up on themselves. Understand that at its core, perfectionism is about fear. If you want kids to be motivated by enthusiasm and excitement instead of anxiety, you need to make healthy risk-taking seem less scary.

2.    Help them define realistic expectations and focus on the relationship
When children set sky-high, unattainable standards, they are often disappointed. Ask them what they would like to achieve and discuss whether it’s realistic. They may be so busy shooting for the moon, they don’t give themselves credit for smaller triumphs. Let them know you love them for who they are, not for anything they do. Focus on them as individuals, and deemphasize performance and achievement. Be a non-judgmental sounding board.

3.    Expect resistance and be patient
Perfectionist behaviors are not easy to change because they also serve an important protective function. These behaviors may help children cope with uncertainties and give them a sense of control. In addition, teens may feel that this is the only way to achieve greatness, and that such characteristics are praiseworthy and virtuous. It can be easier to hide behind perfectionism than to admit you have weaknesses. Understand the underlying motivation so you can tackle it head on, and offer alternative coping strategies, whether it’s exercise or talking to a friend. Take baby steps. Have them write a letter without correcting the typos. Learn a new skill such as yoga together, and react with humor if you tip over while posing.

4.    Challenge faulty thinking
Over time, Maggie made small inroads with Mira. She continued to challenge her daughter’s belief that she couldn’t handle a mistake. She stopped Mira mid-conversation when she catastrophized. Together, they brainstormed ways to move beyond both real and perceived setbacks. Maggie also tried to help Mira avoid ruminating, because it only magnified the intensity of her self-doubt. It helped that Mira was motivated to change. She began to understand that perfectionism was a pathway to sadness and anxiety, not excellence.

Ultimately, teens respond to pressure in different ways. Like Mira, some seek complete control. However, when this perfectionist approach fails, kids may be more likely to turn to unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol, drug or medicine abuse. If parents model perspective and offer unconditional love, they will increase the likelihood that their children will turn to productive forms of relief.

How do you help your teen handle pressure? We’d love to hear what has worked for you. Let us know in the comments below!

Phyllis L. Fagell is the counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, and a licensed clinical professional counselor at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD. She tweets @pfagell.