Parents Expecting Perfection

by Jill Taylor on February 1, 2013

in Parenting

teenHistory is full of athletes, geniuses and role models who didn’t follow the rules of perfection, but are wonderful examples of successes in their own life.

Perhaps they got cut from the high school basketball team or never finished college, but we still hold them in high regard.

We can take a step back and agree that no one is perfect, but what messages are we sending to our teens?

Dr. Meera S. Beharry, Scott & White Chief of Adolescent Medicine says she encounters this problem every day. Youth are feeling inadequate, worthless or overwhelmed due to high expectations.

Some of these adolescents manifest their feelings in anxiety, eating disorders, depression, anger and violence, or sometimes drugs and alcohol.

In some ways feeling inadequate is a plague of this generation,” says Dr. Beharry. “I think a lot of the messages from the media and society at large, say you have to be a celebrity in order to be valued, you have to be a pro ball player, or you have to be a genius in order to be wonderful.”

This can weigh heavy on young people, as Dr. Beharry says this is a very common problem. She treats youth every day who are feeling down, worthless or that their failure is just too much to handle.

Dr. Beharry says these feelings are seen in both young women as well as increasingly expressed by young men. She adds, “It’s present in all spectrum of performers, but it tends to be more dramatic in those who have classically been doing well. It’s more of a shock to them when they are confronted with having to deal with a challenge or rejection when they haven’t before. They don’t have the same tools to deal with a setback.”

Common expectations that weigh on teenagers include:

  • Expecting perfect grades or high honor students
  • Expecting Renaissance children, who are involved in sports, arts and a number of activities
  • Expecting your child to do well in everything they do
  • Expecting your child to get into the best colleges or schools
  • Expecting accolades and awards that are unrealistic

To combat this, we can go back when a kid is a toddler. Any one of us would not be overly critical if the child did not walk particularly well when they first tried it. Adolescents are learning, exploring and interpreting the world around them.

Parents have a key role in assisting during this journey and balancing freedom with healthy expectations.

To help, Dr. Beharry counsels parents to take a look at their own lives.

Parents can:

  1. Be honest and reflective with your own accomplishments and work.
  2. Share stories of failure, in addition to your successes.
  3. Keep in mind that adults typically stay where they feel comfortable, while youth are still exploring areas of interest and skill.
  4.  Be cautious of the messages you are sending.  Teens will notice non-verbal communication and comments about other people’s performance.
  5. Even if you value a certain activity, your child may have other interests. Step back and help your child discover these, independent of your pressure.
  6. Help guide them as they gravitate towards different areas of interest.
  7. Celebrate effort as well as success.
  8.  Reflect on something that may be similar for yourself and try to relate to your child.
  9.  Let your kid play or try out an activity with zero expectations.
  10. Remember that the happiness, growth and development of your child are most important.

“During high school is where I end up seeing these feelings of inadequacy most,” says Dr. Beharry. “In high school, kids have more freedom to choose different classes or activities. They start doing well in one or two subjects, slipping off in some of the subjects they don’t find interesting. This is helpful for them so they know what they’re good at, and can help direct their career choices.”

If you as a parent want to improve your relationship with your teen, the first step is to talk to your primary care doctor and tell them this is a concern. You can also talk to the guidance counselor at school. Dr. Beharry welcomes many young people or parents who are willing to work through balancing expectations.

For more information and future guidance,  Dr. Beharry recommends Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings by Kenneth R. Ginsburg.

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