How to Help Your Teen with Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a common pattern among teens. Perfectionism is a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards. Perfectionists tend to compulsively reach for their goals and measure their self-worth by productivity, accomplishment, and the quality of their work. It is often born out of feelings of shame and a need to hide anything that might point to shame or embarrassment.

If perfectionism becomes severe in teens, it can develop into certain forms of mental illness. For instance, teens with eating disorders typically:

  • Have a low self-esteem
  • Tend to have feelings of hopelessness
  • Withdraw or isolate themselves
  • Can be addicted to playing sports or exercise
  • Have low self-esteem, body hatred, or self-hatred
  • Tend to exhibit perfectionism and obsession for achievement or accomplishment

Although many teens can be a perfectionist without developing an eating disorder, this is a character trait that is commonly found among those who have an eating disorder, such as Anorexia Nervosa. Sometimes, applying perfectionism to the body can contribute to the development of an eating disorder in teens.

In other teens, perfectionism might appear in the form of obsessions. However, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, also known as OCD, is more than a need to be perfectly clean. In fact, it’s much more than perfectionism or cleanliness. OCD is an illness that includes having many repeating thoughts and images that cause a teen to perform the same rituals over and over again, such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, or counting money.  And that’s where the obsessive-compulsive come in. In other words, a teen may obsess about something, which then drives them to behave compulsively. A common obsession that teens might have with OCD is worrying that something bad is going to happen. A teen might also obsess over the action (locking doors) that in their mind will prevent that bad thing from happening. Sometimes, OCD may develop out of a strong fear of being shamed. A teen may then obsess about achievement in order to avoid shameful feelings.

To be clear, perfectionism doesn’t necessarily contribute to mental illness, but it is something that parents and caregivers can watch out for and help their teen overcome.  Here are a few things to keep in mind about perfectionism:

  1. Some form of perfectionism is healthy and it can help a teen reach their goals.
  2. Perfectionism can lead to all or nothing thinking. For instance, a teen might think that if they can’t be perfect in a task then they won’t do it at all. However, some things take time in developing, such as playing a sport or learning a new task. It’s important to let teens know that it’s okay to make mistakes and that those mistakes lead to growth.
  3. Teach your teen self-love and self-respect. You can not only talk about this with your teen but you can also model it for them.
  4. Help your teen explore all that they are doing well right now. This can help them see that they don’t have to prove themselves with perfectionism. There is so much that a teen is already succeeding at.
  5. Praise your teen as much as possible. See what they are succeeding at, even if it’s something small. For instance, if your teen is having a hard time at school, they are at least succeeding with going to school on time and each day of the week. Look for the positives in your teen’s life.

These are suggestions for helping your teen overcome perfectionism.