Perfectionism: What if I Fail?
Is perfectionism and the pressures of daily life creating anxiety in your teen? Does your teen have difficulties starting or completing a new task for fear that he or she will fail? Is your teen struggling with schoolwork or participating in after-school or athletic activities?
For many teenagers today, aiming for perfection and the overwhelming fear of failure is an unfortunate reality. When these teens are “high-achievers,” they will often set lofty goals and assume complete failure if their goal isn’t met with sheer precision and perfection.
These teens run the risk of constant disappointment, which can lead to the development of anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, as well as family and peer conflict. In order to mitigate the potential effects of perfectionism and related anxiety, consider the following strategies to help your teen find more balance in their daily life:
1) Promote Hard Work Rather Than Perfectionism
Encourage your teenager to consider goals that feel realistic and manageable, while still aiming for a challenge. It can be helpful to have conversations at the start of the new school year or after finals with your teen about his or her expectations.
This can be a great opportunity to help your teen modify or eliminate goals that may be too overwhelming. Perhaps taking three AP classes may be too much. Instead, encourage your teen to participate in one or two advanced classes, so they are able to dedicate their time to a challenge, while also finding time for self-care, social events, and after-school sports and activities.
2) Defeat Negative Patterns of Thinking
Perfectionism is often associated with negative and self-defeating thoughts. These irrational thoughts will only exacerbate your teen’s anxiety and make it more challenging to find small successes and the necessary confidence within themselves. Teens will often engage in “all or nothing” thinking, such as complete failure or straight A’s. Teens may also think in catastrophic ways. For instance, “If I get a B on this chemistry test, I’ll blow my chances of getting accepted to my college of choice.”
Encourage your teen to use a basic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique called cognitive reframing, where he or she can challenge the irrational thoughts. Help your teen replace the problematic thought with a more positive thought or fact that is more grounded in reality. Once your teen can change their negative self-talk, they are likely to feel less anxious and experience an increase in mood.
For example, we can change “I failed my math quiz and now I’m going to fail the class” to “I didn’t do my best on this quiz, but I have many opportunities to ask my teacher for help and the remainder of the semester to work hard.”
3) Cope with Stress and Anxiety in Healthy Ways
Foster a safe space for your teen to express their emotions and talk about their stressors. Often times, having an outlet and using healthy emotional expression skills can drastically reduce the pressures and decrease the anxiety your teen is experiencing.
Encourage your teen to cope in positive and healthy ways, rather than internalizing and shutting down. Avoid negative coping skills, such as immersing themselves in screens and electronics or napping to avoid the stress. Validate your teen’s concerns and anxieties while also challenging him or her to cope in healthy ways. This will look different for each teenager, but can include playing sports or talking with his or her peers, listening to music, going for a run, journaling, drawing, or even downloading a breathing or guided mediation app on their smartphone.
Talk with your teen about how he or she can view mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than total failures. Model positive self-talk and encourage your teen to “aim high” without resorting to perfectionism and self-defeating patterns of thinking in their academic and social worlds.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
– J. K. Rowling