How to parent the overachiever or perfectionist teen

It’s a ‘be careful what you wish for thing’.

From the outside, your teen looks like a dream, and you seem the perfect parent because they do what you ask and more without the constant nagging and reminding. They get good grades, teachers rave about them, other parents wish they had them and they likely might even have less relationship drama.

This is a parenting dream. A fantasy even.

Then there’s the dark side behind the mask at home where their obsessions and insecurities are more visible and your teen breaks down, becoming unhinged because things aren’t going the way that they wanted. The way they NEED them to be. Your teen’s emotions oscillate between shut down, pissed off, and frantically anxious yet rarely calm unless they’re in control and calling the shots. You love everything your teen is achieving and the lack of need to motivate them, but you’re concerned your high achieving child is going over the line. Or worse, you’re too caught up in accolades for their performance and results to see the unhealthy behaviours and cries for help.

High achieving and perfectionism aren’t the same things, even if one might lead to the other

High achieving – a healthy striving toward growth and bettering oneself, setting goals to achieve something meaningful 

Overachieving or perfectionist – an unhealthy fear driven energy towards something which is unachievable, working unreasonably hard to avoid something happening

It’s about the WHY.

A high achiever sets approach goals-moving toward something, want that experience or result, motivating for growth, learning, self-improvement, competitiveness, challenging themselves in a healthy manner, and taking setbacks as learning (even when they’re painful), rather than cuts against their character.

An overachiever or perfectionist used avoidance as a key motivator–doing whatever they can to create situations that keep them safe from difficult or painful emotions (feeling or looking like a failure, criticism, comparison, etc.), seeking external approval to cover internal insecurities and validation of their worth.

An overachiever or perfectionist may be highly competitive, and even very successful in their efforts but when they don’t win, they get defensive, irritated, escalated, or shut down 

Perfectionism is not self - improvement

“Behaviours where your teen is so hyper focused on being perfect that they miss out often on the world around.” Things that Dr. Brené Brown calls ‘life paralysis’.

“Perfectionism is both environmental, but it is also personality style as is high achievers. So most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement or performance. And somewhere along the way they adopted a dangerous and debilitating belief system that says, I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. 

Please, perform, perfectly.” - Dr. Brené Brown

If you were raised in that kind of performative environment, it’s quite normal that you would also raise children in performative environments because it’s what you know.

Researchers defined perfectionism as:

a significant public health concern that urgently requires sustained prevention and intervention efforts because young perfectionists are particularly at risk because the patterns of thinking solidify during adolescents. 

It starts with blame and shame.

When parents are vigilant about who’s to blame in any situation i.e. between siblings, a child and their friends, lack of performance in school, responsibility for chores, etc., it sets up a fear of being wrong rather than learning and being loved through mistakes. For your child, being wrong or vulnerable (AKA making mistakes) signals emotional pain met with a lack of empathy so they mask up, hide mistakes, or aim for perfect to avoid it and develop a shame story–“I’m not enough”.

Children make up their value and your love for them is based on certain behaviours and outcomes. Shame is connected to blame and the threat of disconnection. It says you didn’t just make a mistake; you ARE a mistake.

Later, your teen lacks the ability to be with and regulate through hard feelings which get suppressed or expressed in unhealthy ways.

“Shame is highly correlated to addiction, violence, bullying, depression and eating disorders”, says Dr. Brené Brown 

Separate struggle from self-worth

Failure is like death to a perfectionist. Follow these steps to turning this mindset around and begin normalizing struggle and failure as a rich part of learning and being human:

1) During dinner time, talk about the times that you struggled and your level of panic and how sickening it felt. Talk about what you were aiming for, what you learned and if you changed because of it.

2) Begin affirming who your teen is 80% of the time (character traits, effort, use of time)and only 20% acknowledge the achievement/results to change where their brain is focusing.

3) Show empathy and compassion when your teen is struggling without trying to fix, rescue or cheer them up. Allow the discomfort of vulnerable, messy feelings so they don’t need to avoid them or perform them away.

4) Model struggle by talking about your feelings when situations feel hard and being secure in who you are as separate from what you’re going through.

5) Use humor to remove the sting of failure, but be careful not to cross the edge of invalidation or more shaming

Modelling empathy has been proven to build emotional safety, which is critical in maintaining influence with your teen now and into the adult years. As simple as it sounds, understanding empathy and exactly what to say is one of the biggest shifts parents in my programs make to deepen their connection with their teen.

You can be that parent too! Watch your inbox in just a few weeks when my program enrollment opens.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to you and your family! I hope you get the relax and downtime you need without trying to be or do all the things, because that’s so 2018.

Do less, connect more.

Reference-https://www.latimes.com/california/newsletter/2022-04-04/8-to-3-academic-perfection-toxic-teens-8-to-3