I’ve spent the last two years talking with parents about the unprecedented stress and anxiety plaguing their adolescents — nearly half of whom, according to recent studies of college students, report feeling “overwhelmed by all I had to do.” Our conversations often end with parents expressing a mournful wish: “I just want her to be happy,” they tell me. “But she puts so much pressure on herself.”
As parents, we say this phrase from a place of good intention. We want to signal to our children that we don’t need or expect them to be perfect, and that we will love them no matter what. Yet the very phrasing of the statement — “on herself” — lays blame for distress at the feet of our teens, rather than a culture that is stoking the flames of their anxiety. It puts the onus for change on kids – just chill, we seem to be saying, and you’ll be okay! – letting the rest of us off the hook, even as we may unwittingly exacerbate their distress.
In fact, we may be making it worse. A new study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” finds that young people are more burdened than ever by pressure from others, and that includes parents. Psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill found that unhealthy perfectionism has surged among young adults, with the biggest increase seen in those who feel pressured by the expectations of others. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, is a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”). In its unhealthiest forms, perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide.
Perfectionism is caused by a variety of factors, not only parents. Young adults have described pressure to appear flawless in every domain, often effortlessly so — in schoolwork, athletics, activities, and looks — since the early 2000s. Social media has raised the bar in the pursuit of teen perfection, introducing a place where the drive to project success, as much as a wish to connect, draws youth like moths to the digital flame. As kids hungrily seek the “likes” of their peers, it is not uncommon for many to delete posts that don’t receive enough “likes.” (The one-like-per-minute ratio is most desirable, according to the many teens I speak with.)
But the parental push to raise an uber-successful child has never been more keenly felt, so much so that researchers have a name for it: “child-contingent self-esteem,” or the tendency for a parent to base their own self-worth on the success of their child. Parents now spend more time than ever on school work with their children, while time spent simply hanging out has declined. Meanwhile, between 1986 and 2006, the number of kids who said their parents surveilled their every move doubled.
In other words, teens are not the only ones guilty of “putting too much pressure” on themselves — the push to fulfill others’ expectations has never been higher, for parents too.
In the recent perfectionism study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the researchers examined how cultural changes over the past three decades have shaped the personalities of 40,000 college students in the United States, Canada and Britain. It revealed a bump in two types of perfectionism: “self-oriented” (in other words, having high expectations of yourself), and “other-oriented,” where people have rigorous standards for others, and treat them with hostility or disdain when they fall short.
But the most dramatic finding, by far, was a 33 percent spike in the kind of perfectionism where teens feel they must be perfect to win approval from others, whether it be friends, social media followers or parents. These teens tend to believe others judge them harshly, and they see their schools and families as unreasonably demanding. Psychologists call this the most debilitating form of perfectionism, because youth are plagued by the feeling they’ve let others down, whether it be by bottoming out on a test score, missing a shot on goal or getting a “no” from a first-choice college. It is associated with major psychopathology like anxiety and depressive symptoms.
The outcome of all of this can be clamming up. Students perform successly online while struggling in silence, quietly fearing everyone is smarter and more competent than they are. When we then tell teens that their wellness is in their own hands, something they might fix if only they relieved themselves of the burden (that “You don’t need to put so much pressure on yourself” statement), it has the opposite effect. We only add to their sense of shame that they have failed to measure up.
So what is there to do?
Stop using those words. Parents might do well to consider a different tack. “It’s so hard right now to feel like anyone is successful enough,” you might say. “We are all feeling the pressure, and I hope you’ll tell me if I can do anything to make things easier.”
Look at the big picture. No matter how much you urge them to relax, and how much you mean it, your child probably grapples with highly stressful environments away from home, whether it’s where they go to school, the teams they play on, or the peers in their social circle. Most teenagers I know long for empathy from their parents about their struggle. Validating how tough it is out there will go a long way.
Make sure your actions match your words. Many teenagers I’ve talked to call their parents’ bluff when told that they just “want you to be happy.” They suspect what their parents secretly want is a high GPA. New research is confirming teens’ claims, finding that, when it comes to parents, there is often a split between what we tell our children — “just do your best!” — and what we may actually believe. For example, a parent may say “kindness to others” is paramount, but his actions focus attention on high achievement and status; this, researchers say, lets children know he values these traits more. As parents, we must be mindful that our actions are matching our words.
At the end of the day, most parents have more in common with their teens than they realize. Let’s retire the bootstrap mentality and stop telling our teens that their stress is self-imposed.
Rachel Simmons is co-founder of Girls Leadership and the author of Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards to Live Healthy, Happy, Fulfilling Lives. Follow her on twitter @racheljsimmons. (For those in the D.C. area: Simmons will be speaking on March 1, at National Cathedral School at 7:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Students in grades 7 and up are welcome with their parents.)
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