By Jennifer Pitman, LCSW
Marcus is an incredibly intelligent 16 year old who attends a highly competitive school. He has always loved playing basketball, but now wants to quit despite his talent and love for the game. Always a very smart child, Marcus frequently delves into topics of interest to him, but when it comes to school he is completing the bare minimum of homework (if that) and at times may not even hand in the work he has completed. His parents try to help by reminding him of his talents, but he is becoming increasingly shut down at home. Understandably, his parents, teachers and coaches have become frustrated. What words come to mind when you read about Marcus’s recent behavior? Unmotivated? Lazy? How about, perfectionist?
The word perfectionist may conjure images of an overachiever, a hard worker or someone who is meticulous about the tiniest of details. While this may be the case, perfectionism is often overlooked in a young person who is underperforming in school. How could a perfectionist allow themselves to not be “perfect”? Perfectionism is both an expression of anxiety and a way to cope with it. Anxiety increases as one struggles to meet the standards they’ve set for themselves, or standards they perceive others have for them. The fear of not living up to these standards triggers a stress response and our survival mechanism, also known as our fight or flight response, kicks in. This may present itself as working tirelessly to achieve a goal at any cost. However, the fight to survive might also present as shutting down, giving up, and avoiding any challenges. The presence of any external pressures, like social media, parental expectations, or even being surrounded by high achieving friends or family members, can exacerbate this response even more.
Situations like this can be understandably frustrating for parents and teachers, who are often left feeling powerless to help their struggling teen. Unfortunately, this can also lead to labels like “lazy” as a child’s support system begins to give up. How then can we support a child or teen who is struggling with perfectionism?
Take a step back and notice your interactions with your child. Are most of your conversations focused on what they are not achieving? Take a moment to think about the expectations you have for your child. Are they constantly letting you down? If yes, are you willing to shift these expectations in order to meet your child where they are?
As parents, we want the best for our children, but sometimes the message we intend to send is not the message that is received. You know that your child is smart and talented and capable of so much, which you keep telling them, hoping it encourages and inspires them. But to a perfectionist, this can feel like intense pressure, triggering that stress response.
Instead, try to offer encouragement and support without focusing on their performance. Remember to validate their experience, even if it is different from yours.
Allow your child to be themselves and find their way without judgment. Remove expectations and take the time to just have fun together. Be curious about who they are and what they enjoy – this can increase their feelings of connection to you and help them feel safe enough to open up when they are struggling.
Allow Room for Mistakes
Mistakes, while scary, are what help us to grow and change. It’s important to have rules and boundaries in place, while allowing your child to experience real life consequences. As your child becomes increasingly comfortable with the uncomfortable they will be better equipped and more willing to take on challenges in the future.
If you notice that your child is becoming isolated, avoiding challenges and generally not working up to their potential, avoid getting frustrated and start getting curious. Consider that they may simply be trying to survive the pressure they have put on themselves to be perfect.