Perfectionism Among Teens Is Rampant

I’ve spent the last two years talking with parents about the unprecedented stress and anxiety plaguing their adolescents — nearly half of whom, according to recent studies of college students, report feeling “overwhelmed by all I had to do.” Our conversations often end with parents expressing a mournful wish: “I just want her to be happy,” they tell me. “But she puts so much pressure on herself.”

As parents, we say this phrase from a place of good intention. We want to signal to our children that we don’t need or expect them to be perfect, and that we will love them no matter what. Yet the very phrasing of the statement — “on herself” — lays blame for distress at the feet of our teens, rather than a culture that is stoking the flames of their anxiety. It puts the onus for change on kids – just chill, we seem to be saying, and you’ll be okay! – letting the rest of us off the hook, even as we may unwittingly exacerbate their distress.

In fact, we may be making it worse. A new study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” finds that young people are more burdened than ever by pressure from others, and that includes parents. Psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill found that unhealthy perfectionism has surged among young adults, with the biggest increase seen in those who feel pressured by the expectations of others. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, is a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”). In its unhealthiest forms, perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide.

Perfectionism is caused by a variety of factors, not only parents. Young adults have described pressure to appear flawless in every domain, often effortlessly so — in schoolwork, athletics, activities, and looks — since the early 2000s. Social media has raised the bar in the pursuit of teen perfection, introducing a place where the drive to project success, as much as a wish to connect, draws youth like moths to the digital flame. As kids hungrily seek the “likes” of their peers, it is not uncommon for many to delete posts that don’t receive enough “likes.” (The one-like-per-minute ratio is most desirable, according to the many teens I speak with.)

But the parental push to raise an uber-successful child has never been more keenly felt, so much so that researchers have a name for it: “child-contingent self-esteem,” or the tendency for a parent to base their own self-worth on the success of their child. Parents now spend more time than ever on school work with their children, while time spent simply hanging out has declined. Meanwhile, between 1986 and 2006, the number of kids who said their parents surveilled their every move doubled.

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