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Perfectionism and Teens

I think the desire for perfection is having a toxic impact on today’s youth. 

I am concerned that our young people – our children – are buying into a lie that says they are destined for mediocrity unless they are absolutely perfect.  

Many believe that they must present themselves as superhuman in order to get into the top colleges, but this façade forces them to compromise their integrity in order to enhance their resumes.  

I don’t like it.

I find that many students care more about looking good on paper than who they are growing up to be. 

I am talking about character – and my fear is that this push toward perfectionism will undermine the very ingredients needed for success in today’s world. This pressure to produce an attractive college candidate at 18 years old may make a less successful human being in the long run. 

Our focus in preparing our kids for adulthood is to raise them to be respectful and kind human beings capable of following their dreams and ambitions to be successful as adults. 

What are the ingredients that we are missing today? 

Young people need compassion. They need empathy, kindness, self-respect, generosity and motivation. They need tenacity and a strong work ethic. They need the social and emotional intelligence that will prepare them to have sound leadership and communication skills. They need to be able to accept and react to constructive criticism without feeling as though they are being attacked. 

They need creativity and an innovative spirit to be able to develop the solutions and strategies not yet imagined. Perhaps most critically, though, they need the resilience to recover from life’s blows and setbacks.   

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My friends, our children are going to have some blows and setbacks.  

We are doing our kids harm when we suggest that in order to make it in this world they must be good at absolutely everything. Perhaps we hold up sports stars or performers as examples of greatness, but in the end, these people are only human, with flaws and struggles we might know nothing about. When we speak of those people and present them as superhuman, we increase the hype and dial up the stress because it seems we expect our kids to be superhuman.  

Superhuman doesn’t exist, no matter what the media machine feeds us.  

Imagine how our teens respond to this kind of pressure. Some will put on the mask of indifference and will work hard to pretend that they don’t care – precisely because of how much they do care. They might get off the playing field altogether. Some will quit with the rationale that if they can’t be perfect, there’s no point in trying. Others will push themselves toward perfectionism, thereby decreasing their chances at real success.  

It’s important to note here that there is a big difference between high achievers and perfectionists.  

High achievers run the world. They excel at something, but don’t have the idea that they must be good at everything. They revel in their accomplishments and value constructive criticism. They seek out opportunities for growth and self-improvement. They see failures as temporary setbacks to be overcome with greater effort. 

By contrast though,  perfectionists consider themselves unacceptable unless they meet impossibly high self-imposed standards. They worry about their flaws being discovered and therefore view constructive criticism as an attack. Their creativity and innovation are stifled because they fear the B-plus – always reaching for the A at all costs.  They refuse to think outside the box because their fear of failure is so extreme, so they aren’t as resilient because they see even mild setbacks as catastrophes. 

We need to stop putting pressure on our kids to be good at everything. This pushes them toward perfectionism and undercuts the core ingredients needed for true success.

What we need is for every kid in America to feel that they can make a major contribution to society. This doesn’t mean that they must change the world, but rather make a difference in their worlds – in their communities and neighborhoods and with their friends and families. 

More than anything, we need to focus on building their self-esteem. Nobody is perfect, and when we place sports stars and performers on the pedestal or heroism, we end up in big trouble. Most teens will learn that they will never be a hero – at least in that scenario. If we help them to understand that there are heroes in our midst every day - teachers, firefighters, police officers, first responders, social workers, doctors and single moms who make sure her kids are taken care of – maybe they will understand that they too can make a real difference.  

But when we fill our kids with the hype that this generation is filled with super humans, we condemn those striving for perfection to self-doubt and the fear of failure. Worse, we condemn most of our youth to a self-perception of mediocrity.  

My friends – this is a dangerous and slippery slope that compromises the influence we have on our kids and the success of this entire generation. 

It’s OK to ask for help.

It’s OK to ask for help.

The teen suicide epidemic continues to grow, and I believe it ties into mental illness – what is quickly becoming the largest public health crisis of our time. My latest book, Teen Suicide: The "Why" Behind America's Suicide Epidemic, covers these topics in depth. I encourage you to order your copy HERE.