Striving to do well in school is a positive trait in children and teenagers. However, when this slips into perfectionism, it can become unhealthy and impact your child’s mental health.
Signs of Perfectionism
It is estimated that up to 30% of teenagers and young adults struggle with unhealthy forms of perfectionism.
Perfectionists often establish highly unrealistic goals and place pressure on themselves to achieve them. Their thinking is usually black and white, e.g. an A-minus on a test is a failure to them as it is not a perfect score.
The signs of perfectionism in children and young adults can also look like:
- Refusing to try new things in case they make a mistake
- Becoming anxious and upset about making mistakes
- Giving up quickly if they are not instantly good at something
- Fear of embarrassment
- Being overly cautious and thorough in what should be simple tasks
Some perfectionists also procrastinate on homework or other assignments out of fear they will do it wrong or it won’t be perfect.
Perfectionism can manifest in all areas of a young adult’s life. Not only can they focus on achieving perfect grades in school, but they may also strive to be perfect in their appearance. This type of perfectionism can cause young adults to become obsessive about how they look, and they may over-exercise or restrict their calorie intake in an attempt to change their appearance.
Perfectionist tendencies can also appear in your young adult’s hygiene and health. For example, they may shower excessively or focus on eating only clean or healthy foods. No matter where perfectionism appears in a young adult’s life, it can be incredibly harmful to their overall well-being.
Types of Perfectionism
There are three types of perfectionism:
- Other-oriented perfectionists – setting unachievable standards for other people.
- Self-oriented perfectionists – setting unachievable standards for themselves.
- Socially prescribed perfectionists – believing that others have high, unrealistic standards for them.
All three types can be incredibly harmful to mental health.
Those with self-oriented perfectionism can struggle with burnout and anxiety as they work hard to try and achieve perfect grades. Those with other-oriented perfectionism can often face relationship difficulties as they believe their friends and peers should be perfect.
However, it is also possible for young people to have healthy or adaptive perfectionism.
Healthy perfectionism is characterised by holding high standards for others and yourself even when faced with challenges. People with this type of perfectionism might be disappointed when they do not reach their goals, but they do not become distraught as unhealthy perfectionists do.
Causes of Perfectionism
There is no one cause of perfectionism, but there are several factors that can contribute to it:
- Low self-esteem – young adults struggling with low self-esteem may think that achieving good grades will improve their worth.
- Parental influences – although this may be inadvertent, praising children for being smart or getting good grades can encourage perfectionist tendencies. Having a parent who is a perfectionist can also influence young people to become perfectionists themselves.
- Academic pressure – school puts a lot of pressure on young adults and they may feel as though they are only worth as much as their grades.
- Social media – success and failure have been sensationalised by social media and help convince young people they need to be perfect.
- Mental health – conditions such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders can contribute to perfectionist tendencies in young adults. Trauma can also influence perfectionism, making people think they won’t be valued unless they are perfect.
Some may think that perfectionism will make young adults strive for good grades and work extra hard to get them; however, it may have the opposite effect. Perfectionism can lead young adults to suffer from a higher risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and perfectionists have higher stress levels than others.
Young adults struggling with perfectionism also often struggle with inner pain and may mask their problems and pretend everything is okay. Their anxiety over excelling at new things the first time around also prevents them from trying anything new.
How to Help
There are many things that you can do to help a young adult struggling with unhealthy perfectionism:
- Focus on efforts, not outcomes – instead of focusing on what your child has achieved, look at the effort they made to get there. Focusing on their effort can make it clear that achievement is not the only thing in life.
- Talk about your own failures – being a good role model can show your child that it’s okay to drop the ball. Talk about the mistakes you’ve made and how you rectified them in healthy ways.
- Find healthy coping mechanisms – show your child that they don’t have to beat themselves up when they fail or make mistakes. Find healthy ways to cope, such as going for a walk, journaling to write down their thoughts and feelings, or encouraging them to call a friend.
Perfectionism can be symptomatic of a more significant problem within your child’s life. In this instance, they may benefit from professional intervention, especially if they struggle in an academic forum.
Perfectionism is an unhealthy trait that many young adults can struggle with; however, in some cases, perfectionism can be symptomatic of a deeper problem, such as an eating disorder.
The Wave can help. Not only can we provide a healing environment at our beautiful facility in Malaysia, we can help young adults with their academic achievements too. Mental well-being comes first, and our team of compassionate clinicians will provide your child with the support they need to thrive in an educational environment.
 Damian LE, Stoeber J, Negru O, Băban A. On the development of perfectionism in adolescence: Perceived parental expectations predict longitudinal increases in socially prescribed perfectionism. Pers Individ Diff. 2013;55(6):688-693. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.05.021.
 Lozano LM, Valor-Segura I, García-Cueto E, Pedrosa I, Llanos A, Lozano L. Relationship between child perfectionism and psychological disorders. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1855. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01855
Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director of The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a UK Registered Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (Licence number #361609 NCP/ICP), further trained in the specialty of Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment. Fiona is trained in FBT (Family Based Therapy), CBTE for eating disorders, FREED (King’s College, London), EMDR for eating disorders (EMDRIA) and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Neuroscience and Trauma from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Fiona works with international families and family offices from the UK, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia. Fiona can be contacted by email on [email protected].