This past week I had the pleasure of speaking to a few Grade 6, 7 and 8 classrooms about the new world they are currently entering – adolescence. I had just released a new book called Am I The Only One? Struggling Being A Teen and wanted to share with teens in an informal presentation that they are indeed not the only ones. I highlighted a few subjects such as self-esteem, happiness and social media but I also touched on our desire for perfectionism. The theme of this young generation is the pursuit of perfectionism. They are being misled that it is attainable which can inevitably result in overwhelming stress and burnout. Striving for perfectionism is toxic on one’s self-esteem. Having extremely high standards and expectations placed upon them by the adults in their lives can potentially lead to low self-esteem and self-worth or serious mental health issues.
Kids are inundated with information about what can make them prettier, faster, smarter and better. Social media, marketing and the bombardment of celebrity culture has played a huge role in kids constantly measuring their worth by their appearance, academia, talents and achievements. It is healthy to aim for high goals, however, unhealthy to seek perfectionism in everything they do. If a teen’s parents highly value the results he or she produces, the teen’s life will become all about grades, scores, trophies and awards. Secondary to this the teen will also start obsessing about his or her outer appearance because our culture keeps messaging that you can’t only be talented and brilliant but beautiful as well. By accepting these damning messages as truths, teens will eventually start internalizing them and become self-critical, self-conscious and fearful of making mistakes. It is very detrimental to their well-being.
During my presentation I had an answer and question period. Seeing that some students were too shy to ask their questions aloud they were offered to anonymously write them down on a piece of paper. One of the questions was: “What can I do about my parents who always compare me to the scholars in my school and want me to have better grades than them?” Sigh. This question, although troublesome, is not the least bit surprising. It is very common. Here is a kid, like many others, anxious about coming home with a report card because he knows it will not be good enough. Parents setting extremely high standards for their children are setting them up for failure. I know they believe what they are doing is in their children’s best interest. There are probably a lot of good intentions behind it. However, having unrealistic expectations can potentially lead to feelings of inadequacy, depression and anxiety and hopelessness. I explained to the group that parents do have their children’s best interest in mind but may not be aware of the harm they are doing to their children’s self-esteem by putting such extreme pressures on their kids. I stated that it was important to be truthful about how it makes them feel. Tell their parents that they feel they will never be good enough – that they want to be accepted and loved not by their grades but by who they are. I told them that sometimes parents need a wake-up call and be made aware of how pressured they feel in trying to reach for something they don’t either desire or capable of achieving. There is a great difference between encouraging and burdening a child.
In my book I write about the negative physical, emotional and mental effects of perfectionism. Chasing perfectionism makes kids vulnerable to future health problems. It compromises their chances for happiness and undercuts their hopes and dreams. My hope is that teens will support each other by resisting the cultural messages of what they are being told they need to look and be like. Parents also need to be compassionate and understand the daily pressures kids face from their peers. No one wants to feel left behind and I believe kids are always trying their best. It is when they feel that they aren’t good enough that they give up. In my profession I have seen what kids look like when they give up. It’s a very heart-breaking sight and I hope you never know it or worse feel it.