How Perfectionism in Adolescence Impacts Mental Health (And What You Can Do About It)

At first glance, perfectionism seems to be innocuous – often, it’s even seen as a positive thing. When teens have high standards for themselves, they work hard and accomplish their goals. However, there’s a dangerous flipside to perfectionism, and it can have a variety of harmful consequences for your child. Here’s what perfectionism looks like and how you can help mitigate current and future problems.


What causes perfectionism in teenagers?

There are a few reasons that a teen might become a perfectionist, and some of it is entirely outside of your (and their) control. According to researchers, there’s a genetic component to perfectionism – which explains why I was crying over anything less than an A+ as a child though my parents never demanded perfect grades! Sometimes, perfectionists are striving for standards placed on them by external sources; other times, perfectionists have set these standards all on their own.

There are a few other contributing factors, however, including the increasingly competitive college admissions process, the toxic social media comparison game, and sky-high expectations from parents. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t reiterate the importance of academics to your child… but maybe back off if you notice that they’re beating themselves up over minor mistakes.


What does perfectionism in teens look like?

A teen that holds themselves to a high standard isn’t necessarily a perfectionist. They enter perfectionist territory when those standards become unrealistically high, and they become overly sensitive when they, in their view, fall short. Additionally, perfectionists tend to feel like a failure when they make mistakes, taking any and every slip-up personally.

Another characteristic of perfectionism is a tendency for “all or nothing” thinking. They either have straight As across the board or they’re a failure. They’re good at everything or they’re good at nothing. There is no gray area for perfectionists. The motto of Ricky Bobby is the motto of perfectionists everywhere: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

As you might imagine, these thoughts and behaviors can result in a variety of mental health issues, including performance anxiety and depression. Additionally, perfectionism can result in procrastination. How can someone turn in a paper or assignment on time if they never deem it up to their standards? Such high standards can result in paralysis.


How you can help a teen struggling with perfectionism

 If you notice that your teen is exhibiting a lot of these negative signs of perfectionism, there are several things you can do to help.

  • First, talk to them about perfectionism! They might not consciously realize how high their expectations are or how those expectations are hurting them. Help them recognize when their behaviors and cognitions are harmful, and emphasize the importance of giving yourself grace and compassion.
  • On that note, you need to model that same type of compassion yourself! Be easy on yourself and your child. If your perfectionist child makes a mistake, they’re already lecturing themselves so don’t pile on. Be empathetic, supportive, and show them what it looks like to roll with the punches. It can also be helpful to share stories of your own mistakes, what you learned from them, and how you succeeded in spite of them.
  • Don’t be afraid to get them professional help. Many counselors that work with adolescents have experience dealing with the performance anxiety and other mental health struggles that often accompany perfectionism. These clinicians can help your teen reframe their negative self-talk and reevaluate their perfectionist standards.

Everyone hopes to raise a child who does well in school and in life, but even more than that, most of us want our children to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. By learning the signs of damaging perfectionism, you can protect your child from the various issues that come with it.