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How Perfectionism in Children and Teens Impacts Mental Health

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It’s good for young people to have high expectations for themselves. That’s why perfectionism in children and teens is commonly assumed to be a positive. After all, what could be bad about having high standards and working hard to meet them?

It’s true that perfectionists are often high achievers, whether in academics, athletics, or the arts. But perfectionism in teens is just as likely to create paralysis and a devastating cascade of mental and physical health effects. And many high-achieving perfectionists are actually masking inner struggles that can lead to future problems, as several top athletes have recently disclosed.

What makes perfectionism so dangerous, and how can we protect children and teens against its harmful effects?

Causes of Perfectionism in Children and Teens

Between 25 and 30% of teens suffer from “maladaptive perfectionism”—striving for unrealistic perfection to the point of causing them pain. Researchers have determined there is a genetic component to perfectionism, reinforced by behavior learned from perfectionistic parents. But a greater influence comes from environmental factors.

Perfectionism in children and teens has increased by 33 percent over the last three decades, part of a larger society-wide trend that includes:

However, high standards (termed “perfectionistic strivings” by researchers) are not always associated with problems. A teen with a more balanced drive for excellence can get satisfaction from putting in the effort, regardless of the outcome, and can grow by integrating the lessons learned from mistakes.

The Difference Between Healthy Striving and Toxic Perfectionism

The difference between healthy striving and problematic perfectionism comes when anything short of perfection is perceived as a failure. A rigidly critical mindset and a negative view of mistakes (known as “perfectionistic concerns”) are strongly linked to poor mental and physical health effects.

Toxic perfectionism in children and teens typically shows up as:

  • Holding themselves to unrealistically high standards
  • Having a heightened sensitivity to flaws or mistakes
  • Interpreting mistakes as failure
  • Tending towards rigid all-or-nothing thinking.

These tendencies can produce feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. Because those feelings are so distressing, a perfectionist teenager may try to avoid them by avoiding the risk of making mistakes. That can look like procrastination, paralysis, or not trying. Or their striving can consume so much emotional energy that they eventually experience burnout. Either way, they become even less likely to approach future mistakes with a healthy attitude.

Not only does the avoidance of mistakes perpetuate the cycle of perfectionism, but it also interferes with the process of learning. A young person can’t master a new activity or interest if they don’t try it in the first place. They won’t grow if they only stick to things they do well. And they’ll miss out on a critical dynamic of the learning process.

3 Types of Toxic Perfectionism

You may notice one of three types of perfectionism in your child, or a combination:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: A self-oriented perfectionist teenager strives to meet unrealistically high standards that they have set for themselves. This can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and burnout. A study on COVID and perfectionism found that self-critical perfectionism leads directly to psychological distress.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: This type of perfectionist teenager strives to meet unrealistically high standards that they believe other people expect of them. Even the perception of pressure from parents, coaches, and teachers can trigger perfectionistic tendencies, given the natural negativity bias of an adolescent.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism: With this type of perfectionism, a teen holds other people to unrealistically high standards. This appears as blame, lack of trust, cynicism, loneliness, relationship problems, and narcissism.

Perfectionism often manifests as anger, anxiety, depression, attention seeking, fear of disapproval, and, in extreme cases, suicidal behavior. Perfectionism can also trigger the physical effects of living with chronic stress, such as digestive problems, headaches or migraines, and sleep disorders. In addition, perfectionism in children and teens is accompanied by the intense stress of living with an overactive critical inner voice.

“Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.”

—Andrew P. Hill, co-author of  “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016”

Signs of Perfectionism in a Child or Teen

Perfectionism is a personality trait, not a mental health disorder. Hence, there is no set list of child perfectionism symptoms in the psychological diagnostic manual. However, it may show up in the following signs of perfectionism in children:

  • Trouble completing assignments because the work is never “good enough”
  • Intense anxiety surrounding the possibility of failure
  • High sensitivity to criticism
  • Extreme frustration when a mistake is made
  • Procrastinating to avoid difficult tasks
  • Self-critical, self-conscious, easily embarrassed
  • Difficulty making decisions and prioritizing tasks
  • Extremely critical of others.

Unpredictable, uncertain, and uncontrollable situations are all particularly stressful for perfectionists. This explains why the disruptions and unknowns of the pandemic have been so hard for perfectionist teenagers. But because perfectionism and anxiety in children is so closely related, a perfectionist teenager may also suffer in situations that other people may not experience as stressful.

Researchers note a consistent link between perfectionism and anxiety, which is also increasing among children and teens. And a new study shows that people with extreme perfectionism are the most likely to suffer the negative mental health effects of COVID-related stress.

Here are some of the ways in which perfectionism and anxiety reinforce each other:

  • Repetitive negative thoughts: Teens may ruminate about past mistakes or worry about future failure.
  • A low threshold of tolerance for discomfort: Perfectionist behaviors can arise as a maladaptive strategy to avoid the discomfort of making a mistake or feeling out of control.
  • Frequent experience of stress: Teens with low distress tolerance tend to experience many situations as stressful
  • A learned sense of helplessness/worthlessness: Repeatedly failing to meet their unrealistically high standards reduces their confidence in their ability to perform.
  • Avoidance as a coping strategy: Trying to avoid the discomfort caused by perfectionism actually increases the potential for future anxiety.

How to Help a Child with Perfectionism

Dealing with a perfectionist child can be a delicate balance for a parent, especially if you have perfectionist tendencies yourself. The most well-intended advice may be interpreted by teens as criticism that confirms their own negative self-evaluation. These tips for keeping yourself centered can be helpful. To support their teens, parents can try the following approaches:

Educate your child about perfectionism.

A perfectionist teenager often has a hard time recognizing the downsides of their perfectionism. Help them understand its true costs, especially the hazards of a rigidly critical mindset and a negative view of mistakes. Teach them how to reframe their negative thoughts and replace self-criticism with self-compassion.

Help your child stay focused on what they can control.

Remind your child that there are three things they can control—their attitude, their effort, and their actions. Help them see that so many aspects of success (or failure) are outside one’s personal control.

Celebrate the growth that comes from mistakes.

Let your child know that you value their good effort, regardless of the outcome. Share your own mistakes, and what you learned from them. Consider a dinner-table ritual of celebrating highs and lows of the day, with special attention to finding the silver lining in apparent dark clouds.

Model acceptance and flexibility.

It’s normal and healthy for parents to want the best for their kids. But take care that you’re not being too rigid in your expectations. Check in with your child periodically with empathy and curiosity, and be willing to shift your hopes and plans for them if those aspirations are not actually serving their best interest.

Enlist professional help.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective approaches for how to help a child with perfectionism. CBT addresses the distorted thinking that underlies signs of perfectionism in children. Moreover, perfectionism can be a sign of an underlying mental health disorder, such as OCD or a trauma response. An assessment by a professional can help uncover the root causes of perfectionism.

At Newport Academy, we support teens to explore their passions and strengths in order to find self-worth that doesn’t depend on others’ opinions. And teens learn healthy coping mechanisms to increase their distress tolerance and help them find the benefits in mistakes and “failures.”

If you think perfectionism is impacting your child’s mental health, contact us today to learn more about our tailored treatment approach and our family-focused philosophy of care.


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