How to Help Kids and Teens Overcome Perfectionism

Kids and teens face overwhelming pressure to reach an impossible standard: perfection. From the influence of social media—and the carefully curated photos and highlight reels—to the demands of academics, sports and other extracurriculars, many kids feel they must meet unrealistic expectations or succeed in all areas of life.

Because of this pressure, perfectionism and anxiety often go hand in hand, along with low self-esteem and fear of failure. The good news is that there are things we grown-ups can do to help kids with overcoming perfectionism. Read on to learn how.

When you hear the word “perfectionism,” you may think of having high standards. And what’s wrong with that? Many successful people have high standards and are proud of their achievements. Oftentimes, they’re motivated by a desire to learn, grow and better themselves. And research shows that having high standards can lead to positive outcomes. But perfectionism can creep in when high standards become unrealistic.

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by unreasonably high standards and a tendency to be overly critical. People who struggle with perfectionism typically have unrealistic expectations for an extended period, rather than occasionally.

For the most part, people who are internally motivated to succeed focus on bettering themselves. On the other hand, those who are prone to perfectionism are more externally motivated. They try to keep a “perfect” image to avoid judgment and find it hard to be satisfied with their accomplishments.

Having unrealistic or unattainable expectations can lead to negative beliefs about ourselves. Kids who struggle with perfectionism tend to:

  • Criticize themselves excessively
  • Have low self-esteem and confidence
  • Doubt themselves
  • Be highly sensitive to criticism
  • Feel anxious and easily frustrated
  • Be more likely to procrastinate, have trouble making decisions, take a long time to complete tasks or avoid difficult tasks altogether
  • Have an intense fear of failure and mistakes
  • Be less engaged in or unsatisfied with social relationships
  • Lack self-compassion
  • Be more likely to experience depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety or eating disorders

Perfectionism not only has a long-term effect on kids’ mental health, but also on their success.

Perfectionism not only has a long-term effect on kids’ mental health, but also on their success.

Kids who struggle with perfectionism may avoid taking risks or procrastinate due to fear of failure. For example, a child may not try out for a sport because they’d rather not try than risk not making the team. Or a teen may seem like they don’t care about school because they procrastinate or don’t complete assignments, when in reality they’re nervous to get a bad grade. These kids may be labeled as underachievers, which can influence how they’re treated. As they get older, fear of failure may keep them from socializing or applying for certain jobs.

Others may outwardly show perfectionist tendencies and have unrealistic expectations for themselves in all areas of their life. This can leave them feeling burned out and struggling emotionally and physically.

How do we encourage kids to learn and grow without having unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for themselves? That’s where a growth mindset comes in.

Perfectionism can lead to a fixed mindset that focuses on traits like intelligence, emphasizes mistakes and destroys confidence. But a growth mindset encourages kids to focus on the success that comes from effort, which can help them enjoy the learning process and build confidence over time. Here are some ways we can prevent perfectionism in kids:

  • Take perfectionism off the table. From an early age, make it clear that perfection is not the goal, and it isn't attainable. Talk about the difference between being motivated by high standards versus perfection. Set an example by creating and striving toward achievable goals yourself.
  • Focus on effort instead of outcome. We tend to praise kids by saying “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!” But these sorts of affirmations encourage kids to seek approval with more praise. Instead, when we praise kids’ effort, they’re more motivated and typically enjoy the learning process and try harder. Instead of praising your child’s grade, try saying, “I’m proud of how hard you worked.” Similarly, with sports and other activities, don’t focus on the wins, losses or score. Instead, ask what they’re learning and if they’re having fun.
  • Separate who they are from what they do. To have a growth mindset, kids need to learn that they’re capable of growing and changing. If they think “I’m a failure,” they may believe that’s who they are and there’s no changing it. But separating themselves from it and instead thinking “I failed” can help them see it as a temporary experience that doesn’t define them. They know they’re capable of doing things differently next time.
  • Talk about your own mistakes. Embracing our imperfections and responding to ourselves with kindness and compassion teaches kids to do the same. Share mistakes from your past, or talk about them in real time, and explain how you’re learning. For example, if you make a mistake while cooking, try saying, “I was moving too fast. I need to slow down and read the recipe more carefully.” Then, share about how you’re going to remove distractions, take a breath and finish cooking with more focus.
  • Reframe mistakes as an opportunity to learn. We can validate feelings while also helping kids learn from their mistakes. For example, “I noticed you’re frustrated and that didn’t go the way you wanted. It can be hard to figure out something that’s challenging. What do you want to do differently next time?” This shows that mistakes are simply part of learning. Bonus: If you’re struggling with something, ask your child for advice. This shows you see them as capable of solving problems, which can build their confidence.
  • Teach the power of “yet.” Thinking “I can’t” leaves us feeling discouraged, hopeless and stuck. But shifting our thinking to “I can’t yet” creates a sense of hope, which can be motivating. For example, if they’re learning to tie their shoes, have your child first watch you do it, then have them try with your help, then have them try on their own. Walking them through the process teaches them they can always improve with the right mindset and effort. Bonus: Share about things that took you a while to learn. This can help kids see that nobody is perfect, and that we can all grow with effort and practice.

The most important part of building resilience in kids is for them to know we’re consistently there and love them.
  • Teach positive self-talk. What we say to ourselves has a significant impact on how we feel. Help kids understand they have power over their inner voice by teaching the difference between saying something harmful to themselves (e.g., “I’m awful and never going to get better.”) and saying something kind to themselves (e.g., “I’ve learned a lot and am getting better!”). If they’re struggling, an easier starting point when trying to think more positively can be, “What would someone I love tell me?”
  • Help them reframe distorted thought patterns. Teach kids that their thoughts are not facts; thinking something doesn’t mean it’s true. Our brains sometimes get stuck in all-or-nothing thought patterns, thinking things like “I always do ___.” Or “I never ___.” For example, kids who struggle with perfectionism may think they’re never good enough and need help seeing the middle ground. We can help by saying, “Sometimes I struggle with this, but other times I do it well. I’ll get better at it the more consistently I practice.”
  • Be clear about your love for them with words and actions. They need to explicitly hear and see that our love doesn’t depend on what they do. If they think your love is dependent on their success, they won’t do anything to jeopardize it. This can cause intense anxiety and can hold kids back from being brave, taking risks and going after what they want. The most important part of building resilience in kids is for them to know we’re consistently there and love them. That’s why it’s important to be mindful that we’re showing up for them regardless of their success. If kids think we only show interest when they succeed, they may believe our love is conditional.
  • Encourage them to regularly practice healthy coping skills to help them regulate their emotions and proactively manage stress. Teach kids a range of strategies they can use to help them cope with their feelings, like deep breathing, journaling, listening to music or talking to someone they trust.
  • Teach work management skills. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and want to avoid assignments, chores and projects entirely. Teach kids how to solve problems and break things down into manageable steps. Then work with them on starting the process, assessing if it’s working and adjusting accordingly.

  • Talk openly about what success looks like in your family. Is it continuing to learn? Taking risks? Managing stress in healthy ways? Having healthy relationships? Communicating your definition of success can help kids see what you value, making them less likely to think you expect perfection.
  • Embrace uncertainty and encourage bravery. As a family, talk about the things you can’t control, and encourage safe risk-taking, like trying a new activity or auditioning for a show. Talk about how brave it is to try something new when you don’t know the outcome.
  • Talk openly about all feelings. This can help kids learn that all feelings are normal, everyone has similar experiences, and it’s safe and OK to talk about emotions. They’ll be less likely to feel ashamed about their feelings or bottle them up.

Many kids don’t know how to tell us they’re struggling, so it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of perfectionism. For example, your child may be isolating themselves because they’re overly fixated on academic performance. Or you may notice they avoid projects altogether if they don’t think they’re able to do it perfectly.

If you’re worried that your child’s perfectionism is affecting their mental health and well-being, or you’re unsure, talk to your child’s pediatrician or a licensed mental health professional who can provide an assessment and guidance for treatment options.

Call or text 988 if you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, self-harm or any mental health crisis. You can also chat or text for support by downloading the MyGCAL app in the App Store. Any thoughts of suicide should be taken seriously.