Anxious Parenting Series Week 5: Perfectionism and Parenting Your Highschooler

Is the Drive to Succeed and Be the Best a Double Edged Sword?

Friends, I don’t know if I would own my private practice if I wasn’t a bit of a perfectionist. I’m not sure if I would have the drive to put in all of the time, energy, and effort into running a business if I didn’t feel this nervous undercurrent about being successful.

And at the same time, I know that anxiety feels like a motivator because it wants us to keep using it. It tricks us into feeling that we wouldn’t work without it.

So every day in my business, and every day that I’m working at home or checking emails past normal business hours, I take a step back and remind myself: I’m working hard because of my values, not because of my anxiety.

Because anxiety is always going to end up getting in the way.

It will grow too big and it will keep us from succeeding. Which is what we must teach our successful teenagers as well.

We’re coming up on week 5 of our anxious parenting series, with three weeks remaining:

  1. The Building Blocks of Anxiety

  2. Managing Your Own Anxiety as a Parent

  3. Parenting Anxious Pre-Schoolers and Elementary Schoolers

  4. Anxiety and Parenting a Child with Anger Management Issues

  5. Perfectionism and Parenting Your Highschooler: The Balance Between a Drive to Succeed and Just Being Good Enough

  6. Preparing Your Highschooler for College

  7. Out of the Nest: How to Parent Your Anxiety-Driven College Student

  8. Moving Forward and Next Steps

What does anxiety look like in highschool?

A lot of highschoolers experience a significant amount of stress related to homework, classwork, after school activities, applying to colleges, social concerns - there’s a really wide range of issues that impact stress levels.

So, it stands to reason that every highschooler you know is experiencing some stress. And that’s ok, because life is stressful. Managing these multiple stressors is an important skill that will serve them well in adulthood.

But normal stress is different than having an anxiety disorder, and there are a few clues to look out for.

We know what “typical” anxiety looks like - panic attacks, social anxiety, or a general sense of feeling tense and ready for a fight/flight/ freeze overreaction.

But what about those hidden signs of anxiety in high school students? Be on the lookout for:

  • The stress that your highschool student is managing feels overwhelming

  • Things start to slip, like missing assignments or not participating in the same level of sports or other after school activities

  • You notice a higher reactivity, with outbursts that either look like anger or tearfulness

  • Your student has a hard time focusing, and often shifts from task to task, leaving things half finished

  • Your highschooler feels keyed up or on edge

  • Your highschooler’s perfectionism gets in the way of turning stuff in, or leads them into disagreements with their teachers

#1 Identify and Empathize

As you know from the other weeks in this series, the first step to anxiety management for your child is to identify what’s going on, and to empathize with it (and to take a few deep breaths yourself if their stress is making you experience stress, too!)

High schoolers can at times be resistant to their parents pointing out what’s going on, and they may not be willing to accept your help. This is why counseling is a good option - if you notice that their stress is getting in the way more days than not, and is impacting their work at school, friendships, or relationships with you, your highschooler may be a lot more likely to talk about this with a third party counselor more than with you.

So for step one, point out: “Listen. It seems like you’re really getting stressed out about assignments. I know that it’s important to do well, and I really admire your work ethic. But I’m wondering if this is starting to get overwhelming for you.”

#2 Calm

Again, it’s so different parenting a teenager than parenting a younger child. While you can model taking deep breaths with your 5 year old, your highschool student is probably just going to roll their eyes at your suggestion to take a big breath or put their hands on their heart and belly.

Instead, offer another calming technique: going for a walk, taking a break, getting a drink of water, making plans to do something fun together later that week, etc.

Even taking a five minute break from the stressor can help with anxiety levels.

#3 Game Plan

If your child’s anxiety is getting in the way of school work, or their perfectionism is really rearing its head and stalling them out on assignments, walk through options for getting a good enough version down for now. They can hopefully agree that it’s better to turn in a first draft than not turn in anything at all.

It’s also helpful to work on reminding them that doing well is a value of theirs, but that doesn’t mean they have to be stressed to do well. See if they can come up with any examples of times they did well without anxiety really pushing them forward.

Finally, express your concern. And this is a big part of the game plan, too.

“I’m worried that your anxiety and stress is getting in the way of high school, and in the way of your future.”

If you can say this with a calm voice, affect, and kind demeanor, you’re going to get one of two responses.

You’ll either experience your high school student telling you, “No way, it’s not a big deal, I’m fine, stop worrying,'“ or you’ll get a version of response 2:

“Maybe you’re right.”

We all want to set up our high school students for success. We want them to do well. We want them to achieve great things.

Anxiety, perfectionism, and stress can get in the way of all of that.

It can keep them from doing their best and focusing on the task at hand.

It can leave them feeling keyed up and on edge, so that they’re more likely to have a big reaction when something doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to.

It can make them feel paralyzed and stuck when they can’t solve a problem.

And while society likes to tell us that being busy or being a perfectionist leads to big rewards, that’s not the case.

We should help our high school students recognize this as well.

Homework:

Last week we asked:

  1. What are my child’s clues that they’re building toward a meltdown?

  2. How can I catch them and redirect them in the moment, without leading to a blow up?

This week I’m curious to hear about the future, and your fears:

  1. If my child doesn’t learn tools for anxiety management, what does my brain tell me is the worst case scenario?

  2. How likely is this to occur?

  3. How can I help guide them and prevent this?

  4. What percentage am I in charge?

  5. What’s the first step that I can take today?

I’ll see you next week!

Curious to hear more? Reach out to me at kelsey@compassionatecounselingstl.com. As a child and adolescent anxiety specialist, I work with kids, teens, college students and parents to help manage their anxiety, stress, and anger. Compassionate Counseling St. Louis is located in Clayton, MO and works with families throughout Creve Couer, Ballwin, Town and Country, Brentwood, and Ladue. You can set up your first free consult on this very website, on our consultation page.