Centering on Connection

“Perfectionism” and Teens: Fear Dressed Up For the Prom? By Christine Triano, LCSW | Christine Triano

The young woman sitting before me was poised, articulate, and bright. At 16, she was enrolled in several AP classes, taking an SAT prep course, and managing team sports, volunteer commitments and the demands of high school social life, all while earning mostly straight A’s.

By all accounts, she was doing everything right. Over the past several months, though, she had begun to experience symptoms of panic and anxiety, including a rapid heartbeat, poor concentration, insomnia, nausea, and trouble catching her breath. These symptoms started in the spring, but receded over the summer. Unfortunately, now just a few weeks back at school, they had returned in full force. The issue soon showed itself during one of our sessions. “I guess I would say I’m a perfectionist,” she said. “I just have a very high standard for myself.”

As she talked, I observed that her breath appeared shallow and I asked if she’d mind practicing a few deep breaths with me. After a few minutes, I addressed the idea of perfectionism. You see, in case after case of working with stressed out adolescents, I have come to view perfectionism as really just fear dressed up for the prom. Among today’s teens, the drive to do well in high school in order to get into a good college…in order to get a good job…in order to have a successful and happy life…is so widely accepted that it’s almost impossible to challenge. Fear lurks at every turn because the pressure to achieve is so high. Under this mindset, “perfectionism” has become a socially acceptable way of absorbing so much stress and striving that it can literally make a person sick.

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Our young people spend hundreds of hours taking classes to help them prepare for the academic challenges of college, but are missing out on the chance to learn skills to help them manage their stress. Across the country, college counseling centers are seeing the effects of this trend in an overwhelming demand for services. In a survey released last October called the “The First Year College Experience,” half of the students polled said they felt stressed “most or all of the time” and more than a third felt anxious or did not feel as if they were “in control of managing the stress of day-to-day college life.”

So, what’s a parent to do?

For starters, we can start with looking at how well we tolerate our own stress, disappointment, or even failure. Are we flexible and compassionate with ourselves, or do we ruminate, get angry, or beat ourselves up? For our teens, tolerating disappointment and learning to be a learner — that is, a person in the process of gaining new knowledge and skills – is crucial. When I hear college students lamenting that their lives are basically over because of a C on a midterm, I ask them a question. “When you got into school, did they happen to include your diploma in the envelope with your acceptance letter?” They usually pause, offer a little smile of recognition, then shake their head no in understanding.

Parents can play a big role in helping their children learn to tolerate and accept their less than “perfect” achievements. Some ways to start are:

• Try empathizing with their feelings about a perceived less-than-perfect experience. (“I know it’s disappointing you didn’t get the grade you hoped for.”)

• Reinforce their effort. (“I was really impressed by how hard you studied.”)

• Share a personal example of coming to terms with a disappointing outcome in your own life.

Ultimately, as a parent you can ask yourself, “Am I helping my child navigate stress in a way that helps build their confidence?” That confidence, including the belief that even if they are not “perfect,” they are still worthy, loved, and capable, is the best antidote to perfectionism.

Christine Triano, LCSW, is a psychotherapist at The Center For Connection which was founded by Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, South Pasadena resident and co-author of “The Whole Brain Child” and “No Drama Discipline.” CFC offers families an interdisciplinary approach to mental health rooted in an understanding of the ways the brain, mind and relationships interact to shape the individual.