A+ Advice for Parents

Teen Must Learn to Strive for Achievement, Not Perfection

Q: My daughter Mikayla, a high school freshman, recently moved in with my new wife and me. She's such a perfectionist! Her room looks like Martha Stewart cleaned it. She's a competitive athlete and an A student, but stresses over things that don't go according to her plan. We're happy we don't have to nag her about school, but worry she's too obsessed with grades and getting into a top college. Should we be?

A: Since she's just settling in with you, it's unfair to Mikayla to assume she has a problem with perfectionism, says Dr. Jane Bluestein, educator and author of "The Perfection Deception" (Health Communications Inc., 2015).

"Welcome her with open arms," she says. "There's much to praise in a high-achieving teen who keeps her room tidy, aces her courses and has her eye on college. Take time to know her better. Support her efforts to excel."

That said, today's teens are subject to many parental, peer, academic and media pressures that can lead them to think that they must be perfect, notes Bluestein.

"To help her focus on the satisfactions of accomplishment, rather than the impossibility of perfection, help her learn four fundamental lessons," she advises.

One, the goal of effort should not be achieving perfection, but doing our best, says Bluestein.

"There's a big difference," she explains. "Perfectionism -- the belief that we can make all things perfect if we put in the right amount of effort -- has high costs: stress, loneliness, fear of failure, perceived loss of control, negative self-worth should the littlest thing go wrong. These can lead to a mental health crisis if they add up."

Two, it's OK to take risks and fail.

"Recognize her achievements, precision, care, attention to detail," says Bluestein, "but also make her aware that highly successful people succeed because they aren't afraid to fail. In Silicon Valley, it's viewed as a strength to have failed in a few start-ups, because it means you've gained experience that will be valuable when you tackle your next venture."

Encourage her to join a group such as a robotics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) club, where trial-and-error projects are valued.

Three, accept and use constructive criticism, says Bluestein.

"The ability to view feedback as a positive, not a negative, helps high achievers benefit from the wisdom of others and develop resilience," she says. "It defines them as learners who can work collaboratively as part of a team."

Four, help her develop a strong social and emotional core that will serve her when she's challenged by her goals. One way is to reflect on her achievements.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, successful high achievers know how to take time out for themselves. They don't multitask 24-7. They nourish their souls, and can step back to gain perspective," says Bluestein. "They can calm their minds and look within so that they can continue to be creative. Perfectionists are so good at being busy that taking time to reflect feels like cheating."

As she embarks on her high school career, encourage Mikayla to be guided by Winston Churchill: "Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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