Why the quest for academic perfection is toxic for teens

Students seated in an auditorium clap.
San Diego Unified School District high school students listen to a speaker at the Salk Institute in 2019 in La Jolla.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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This is the April 4, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Think for a moment about teenagers at the top of their high school class. They excel in math, language arts, and probably play an instrument, star in the school play or stand out on the athletic field. They are always on time, eager to try new things, and appear to effortlessly excel at all of them.

Every parent’s dream, right?

But the quest for perfectionism can have harmful side effects.

To be clear, a student can be a high achiever but not be a perfectionist, and vice versa. If your child is generally able to cope with setbacks and is OK with not being No. 1 all the time, they probably aren’t in this camp. But if they work hard at the expense of their own well-being, are motivated by a fear of failure instead of personal growth, and tend to be critical of themselves or others, they may struggle with perfectionism.


The drive for young people to be perfect in body, mind and career has increased significantly since the 1980s, according to research from the American Psychological Assn. And it’s likely taking a toll on their mental health. Perfectionism has been linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and what social researcher Brene Brown calls “life paralysis” — all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out into the world that might be imperfect.

“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval,” Brown wrote in “The Gifts of Imperfection.” Full disclosure: My best friend sent me this book a few years ago, which is all you need to know about my own struggle with perfectionism.

“Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance. ... Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect,’” writes Brown.

Researchers suspect that more teens are grappling with perfectionism because of social media, which encourages constant comparison among peers. Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa who’s studied the relationship between academic achievement and perfectionism, told me that social and environmental instability also contribute. “If your world is chaotic,” she said, “you make your life more perfect in order to deal with the unpredictability.”

In a recent paper, researchers called perfectionism “a significant public health concern that urgently requires sustained prevention and intervention efforts.” Young perfectionists are particularly at risk because these patterns tend to solidify in adolescence.

Some people are born with these tendencies, researchers told me. But more often, the impossible standards of perfectionism come from a child’s familial and social pressures — like parents who prize achievement above all else and criticize their children when they make mistakes.


Los Angeles psychotherapist Nadia Akhtar Sim explained this pressure often starts with good intentions. “I work with a lot of children of immigrants, and for their parents, perfectionism is a survival strategy, one that’s transmitted to their kids,” she said. These parents want to protect their kids from the struggles they endured, so their children can fully access the privilege and security they worked so hard for, often through great sacrifice.

Cultural values play a major role too. In the U.S., we’re taught from an early age that the ability to thrive depends on our individual talents and dogged effort. This can lead to hyper-competitive academic and work environments. Consequently, kids may feel like they need to be flawless in order to feel safe and socially connected.

Despite the energy they spend trying to prove their worthiness, perfectionistic children tend to be more socially isolated and have more conflict in relationships, research shows.

“They always have to be on top. They drive people away with their competitiveness,” Vaillancourt said. If a friend gets a better exam score than a perfectionist, for example, they are likely to become upset and have a hard time masking their emotions. Some are also more judgmental of their peers, whom they expect to meet the impossibly high standards they’ve set for themselves.

Perfectionists tend to have a negative internal dialogue, according to Gordon Flett, one of the world’s leading researchers on perfectionism, at York University in Canada. “They’ll tell themselves that they have to do better, that they’re a loser, that someone’s going to one-up them,” he said. These distracting, anxious thoughts can cause sleep problems, poor concentration, procrastination and burnout.

Perfectionism and its negative consequences exist on a spectrum. Maybe your child isn’t on the extreme end, but you recognize some of these tendencies and you’re concerned. If it seems like your child is anxious, depressed or socially isolated because of an obsessive drive to excel, you should seek professional help.


Parents play an important role too. The first step is to talk about it openly — acknowledge its prevalence in society or in your family, and your own struggles with perfectionism if you feel comfortable doing so, Flett said.

“This could be as simple as parents starting a conversation by saying, ‘I was just reading about research showing that perfectionism is on the rise in schools and in young people. Have you seen signs of this in your friends or at your school? Or are you feeling this pressure?’” he said.

It might be easier, though, to engage your teen by talking about public figures who have had longstanding problems with perfectionism, such as tennis player Naomi Osaka, who has talked about the pressure she has put on herself by constantly striving for perfection. Fictional characters work well too — like Alex Dunphy, the super-smart middle daughter in the sitcom “Modern Family,” who ends up going to therapy for help with her perfectionism, anxiety and burnout. “It’s a good example,” Flett said, “because she is such a high achiever but not happy, and the therapy worked.”

Modeling how to cope with making mistakes is also key. Do you blow mistakes out of proportion? Or do you laugh them off, learn from them and move on?

Talk with your kids about what your family values outside of success, Akhtar Sim said. Generosity, kindness and standing up for what’s right are good examples. And because perfectionism comes from an insular focus on the self, encouraging teens to volunteer or participate in a mentorship program can also help them to build a sense of self-worth and fulfillment outside of their own success, Flett said.

It’s also important to counteract all-or-nothing thinking. One bad grade does not mean your kid won’t get into a good college. And not being the best at everything is just part of life. Success is never linear, and those who’ve achieved at the highest levels have a lot of starts and stops, Vaillancourt said.


“We need to get kids to accept that achieving perfection is not possible, even though you may have one-offs here and there,” she said. “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. That’s what makes us human.”

Seeking more mental health services for kids, plus other news

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Southern California last week, in part to learn more about how the pandemic continues to affect K-12 students. At a high school in Koreatown, parents told Cardona about their kids having to adjust to being stuck at home and then suddenly being on campus again. Others spoke of stress and anger among students. And what their kids need, they said, is improved mental health services.

Cardona spoke similarly in San Diego to 1,300 educators at the Carnegie Foundation’s Summit on Improvement in Education conference. There, he said schools needed to shift the status quo to better help students by providing more services aimed at mental health needs, college and career programs, tutoring, and after-school and summer programs.

Nearly half of Los Angeles Unified students — more than 200,000 children — have been chronically absent this school year, meaning they have missed at least 9% of the academic year, according to an investigation by Times writer Paloma Esquivel. This more than twofold increase from pre-pandemic years reveals yet another hit to education with widespread learning disruptions, even as campuses are open for in-person learning.

Likewise, data provided by the district’s Board of Education show that tutoring has reached fewer than 1 in 10 Los Angeles students, another sign of continuing challenges in efforts to help L.A. students. Tutoring has been singled out as a central pandemic response by the state’s most senior public officials, and school districts across the country have ramped up tutoring in myriad forms in an attempt to provide the same benefit as pricey private firms.

Too many children in L.A. are forced to learn and play in paved-over, fenced-in and often treeless campuses that draw apt comparisons to prison yards or parking lots, writes Times columnist Tony Barboza. These conditions are detrimental to learning, health and well-being, and especially harmful because they are so common in the same low-income communities of color that already suffer from a lack of tree canopy, park space and higher exposure to heat and pollution. L.A. Unified’s new superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, has quickly identified the lack of green space on district campuses as a problem.


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