By Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW

When did we start thinking that our teens needed to be so…perfect? Something has changed dramatically over the past several years, and it’s gotten out of hand. Increasingly, teens are showing up to therapy, paralyzed by the pressures and stress that they are facing.

Not only are we listening to teens talk about the crushing feeling of not being quite good enough, recent studies are corroborating this phenomenon. Research shows that in the past ten years, there is a 33% increase in perfectionistic thinking in our youth, and that many young adults feel intense pressure to be flawless in every domain – academics, athletics, looks, and other activities. Feelings of perfectionism or never feeling good enough are associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety. The latest statistics reveal that teens are suffering from anxiety and depression at staggering rates, and the suicide rate is skyrocketing.

There is no single cause that we can attribute to these issues, it is likely a combination of many factors. However, much research is pointing to the smartphone; there are many studies pointing to the strong correlation between increased smartphone usage and increased mental health issues and suicide rates. Experts in the field feel very strongly that the lack of deep emotional connection that often accompanies heavy technology use is a huge culprit, and has caused a spike in the mental health issues of our youth. The disconnect that many teens are experiencing, and the impact on our teens’ emotional capabilities is undoubtedly a huge concern. However, many are starting to realize that there is another negative consequence of our smartphone usage.

We, as a society, are inundated with images of perfection every time we pick up our phone. We see that someone else’s child made honor roll, or that another’s teen got accepted into the “right” college, or yet another family is out to dinner celebrating their son’s 4.0. And it doesn’t stop at academic successes… everyone’s LIFE just looks so darn perfect. We, and our kids, scroll our way through gorgeous new homes, soccer tourney championships, giddy couples, college scholarship announcements, fabulous vacations, bikini pics, beautiful smiles, and what seems to be HAPPINESS.

Social media perpetuates the myth that everyone has it more together than we do, and that if only we tried harder, and our kids tried harder, we could have all that too. And we, sometimes without even realizing it, start sending messages to our kids that set them up to feel that they need to be perfect, or at least way above average, to be happy, and to make us happy. As parents, we have always wanted to push our children to be great, and we have always been proud to share our child’s latest accomplishment. This is not a new development. However, this has been amplified in the past ten years by the introduction of social media.

Some of it is very overt – we all know the stories of parents openly putting enormous amounts of pressure on their kids. However, a lot of the pressure is not so obvious. We say “I just want her to be happy” or “he just puts so much pressure on himself”, yet we impose so many implied expectations. We give kids messages such as going to a 4 year college is a must, STEM classes matter more than a theatre class, and that “C’s” are not allowed. We teach them that they should join clubs to look good on their college application (instead of making sure they have time to do things that they love), and that they should take as many AP classes as possible. In our unspoken approval, we convey that success is measured in terms of what team you are on or what school you get into, and eventually, by the status of one’s career or the size of one’s home. Without openly saying it, we make our kids believe that they are above average and should expect above average results in life. But not everyone can be above average. It’s mathematically impossible.

Not only are we expecting them to be near perfect, we are making sure of it. We, as parents, are – more than ever before – feeling a societal pressure to have high performing kids. We are “over parenting” and not allowing them to fail. We are clearing the path for them, hovering at every turn. We are running forgotten homework up to school, writing their papers for them, and intervening with coaches when they aren’t getting enough playing time in the games. The takeaway for many kids can end up being that without their parents, they simply aren’t capable.

We can only imagine the level of anxiety and despair that a teen might feel if they have had every advantage, have never been allowed to fail, and still aren’t a superstar. We see so many teens who feel that if they aren’t the very best at something that life just isn’t worth living. They are feeling a pressure, and they can’t quite put their finger on where it is coming from. But many are going inward and blaming themselves, saying “I don’t know why I’m putting so much pressure on myself”. When we tell teens to stop putting so much pressure on themselves (implying that it is their fault and that they should be able to fix it), their shame increases and the mental health symptoms worsen.

Our teens want the pressure to stop – but the problem is they can’t articulate where it is coming from, and don’t know how to ask for help. They have not learned the skills to cope. So, many are turning to ADHD meds to give them an edge, dropping out of college at alarming rates, self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, or in extreme instances, finding a way to end it all with suicide. We need to find ways to foster a culture that helps take these pressures off our youth. What can we do??

  • Suggest breaks from social media. Parents and youth are both being influenced in ways we may not even be aware of. We should also emphasize that social media is a highlight reel of people’s lives, not a full, real life. Talk with youth about how people don’t usually post the struggles or the difficulties of their journey, and that everyone has those as well. Install apps like Moment (an app that tracks screen time and breaks down how much time is spent on different apps) on devices to help teens monitor screen time and increase awareness.
  • Stop giving unrealistic praise. When we tell our kids that they are “the smartest kid in their grade” or “best player on the team”, this is not building self-esteem. Instead, it puts pressure on kids to live up to those labels. This can lead to crippling fear of failure.
  • Help our youth realize the value of the learning process. Teens need to learn that the process of learning is far more valuable than the grade that they earn. Discuss learning styles, and talk about what can be gained from mistakes and failures, and how to apply new knowledge to future situations. As parents, we should not shy away from sharing some of our own failures and how we learned from them.
  • Make sure we are teaching our kids emotional skills, not just academic or athletic skills. A recent national survey found that 60% of college freshmen feel emotionally unprepared for college life. We need to let kids learn how to manage their own time, deal with stress, and develop coping skills for mistakes and failure instead of trying to protect them from these things.
  • Give kids permission to not have everything figured out. There is pressure coming from so many directions – teens are being asked what they want to major in and what career path they are taking – and they are being made to believe that they need to know this well before starting the college selection process. Help kids understand that there is nothing wrong with delaying a career choice/major – there is plenty of time to determine these things, and even change their mind along the way.
  • Encourage our youth to try their best, but teach them that there is no shame in not being the best – they need to know that they are just as valuable if they perform in an average range, or even below average in some things. We all want what’s best for our kids, and we all want our children to perform well. But, there is tremendous value in looking at how we are balancing this drive for perfection in our lives.
  • Make sure that our actions match our words. Many of us say that we just want our teen to be happy and that we just want them to do their best, but overreact when the teen falls short of greatness. Studies have found that there is often a divide in terms of what parents say, and what they actually believe and expect. An example of this is a parent saying “being kind is most important”, but then focusing their energy and attention on high achievement and status. Researchers point out that kids are watching where our energy goes – and this focus and attention on achievement lets children know that the parent values those traits more, despite what has been said.
  • Take a look at our own egos and ask ourselves if we are trying to fuel our own ego by our child’s success. We may need to address our own unresolved issues so that we aren’t subconsciously pushing our children to do what we have left unfulfilled in our own lives.
  • Listen and give our youth EMPATHY. Even if we aren’t doing things that are pressuring our teen, they need to understand that we get what they are feeling. We need to validate their feelings of being overwhelmed with these pressures, and ask how we can help them not feel so pressured. No matter how much we might urge them to relax, it’s important that we understand that our teens are probably grappling with these pressures away from home – teachers, school counselors, coaches, and their peers can all be big contributors to this stress. They need to know that we get it, and are there for them no matter what.

As a society, we need a cultural paradigm shift – our society is very image focused and our definitions of success are very narrow, often rooted in status and financial worth. However, we cannot expect change on a large scale unless it starts within our own families. Let’s teach our youth that success can be as simple as pursuing our passions, being balanced in work and play, and knowing how to be kind and love well. Let’s show them that we value these things – not just in our words, but in our actions.

Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in private therapy for adults, adolescents, couples, and families dealing with relationship/interpersonal difficulties. She also provides mental health therapy for issues such as depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma, among many others. Cari utilizes a variety of therapeutic techniques, but finds tremendous value in doing emotion-focused work so that authentic growth and lasting change can occur. In addition, Cari offers presentations and seminars to schools and other organizations on a variety of topics. She has extensive experience in mental health treatment and is passionate about helping others create balance and happiness in their lives.

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