Teens and the Pressure for Perfection

If you were to meet Jenna in a hall at school or at one of her sports or social events, you’d think she could write the book on how to ace the teen years. The 16-year-old Grade 11 student attends a suburban Ottawa high school and, by the look of things, she rules. Academically, she’s an honours student. As for athletics, Jenna’s a fierce competitor who shines at any number of sports. She’s accomplished too, having mastered a couple of musical instruments. And, always, Jenna’s surrounded by friends. For the outside, hers appears to be an A+ teen life.

Her mother will tell you a different story. “You can’t always believe what you see,” cautions Christine Anderson, who has asked that her name and her daughter’s be changed for the sake of privacy. It’s true Jenna does well in many realms, her mom agrees, but it comes at a cost. “I worry about her. You might not realize it, but she’s very hard on herself.” Jenna’s a perfectionist, she says.  “She gets really upset when she doesn’t live up to her own expectations.” Not only does the blue-eyed adolescent with the big grin have a crush on Harry Styles, she also has to succeed. “Jenna’s been more or less driven right from the time she was little,” Christine explains. An early walker and talker, Jenna learned to read and ride a bike—without the training wheels—when she was a preschooler. “She’s always had that spark and determination.”

At times, it has left her mom and dad nonplussed. ‘We’re not pushy, hard-to-please parents. We don’t expect her to be the best at everything; we don’t put pressure on her to get top marks.

“I’ve told her, ‘It’s okay to fail a test. It’s okay to lose. It’s okay.’ ”

Christine thinks her daughter’s love of competition and sports has had an influence. “They’ve all heard it: second place is the first loser.” At the same time, since Jenna hopes and plans to go away to school, her focus on good grades is necessary to get what and where she want. “I understand that,” says her mom.

Still, she adds, “I don’t want her to achieve her goals at the expense of her wellbeing.”

Christine knows how common mental health issues are with local youth. “Jenna’s only two years younger than Daron Richardson,” she comments, mentioning the local teen whose suicide, in 2010, rocked the community. “I’ve done a lot of reading about mental health and anxiety and depression. I’m trying to give Jen the tools to be well.”

Since perfectionism is not uncommon, especially in teens, this mom offers some tips for helping your adolescent gain perspective and develop resilience:

  • Start the discussion and keep talking. Talk about perfectionism and it’s limitations. 
  • Talk about your own failures and disappointments and why it’s okay to fail sometimes.
  •  Listen. What are your teen’s concerns and fears? Your attention and unwavering, nonjudgmental support can go a long way in helping him or her find a healthy way forward.
  • Model the behavior. When you play board games or sports together as a family, focus on the fun and the experience, not the score.
  • If you continue to be concerned get help, starting with your family doctor.


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