Perfect is a red flag!
I was so sad to see the story on CBS Sunday Morning (3/17/19) about Alexandra Valoras the 17-year old, straight A student who killed herself. No one saw it coming. In spite of appearing to have a "normal" life as a class officer and robotics whiz, Alexandra struggled with feelings of being a failure and being worthless. Her parents, teachers and friends had no idea she was feeling so badly about herself. Her inner feelings came to light when they read the two journals she left behind.
In my private practice, I have seen teens panic over getting a B+ or A-, of not getting into an Ivy League school or not be invited to a party where it "appears" everyone else is attending. The teens I see are experiencing anxiety and depression because they are not perfect. I hear the word perfect over and over again! "I have to be perfect and get all A's". "I have to be perfect to be successful". Many teens set the bar for themselves at an unrealistic height of perfection. Since perfect is unattainable, each teen feels he or she is a failure and therefore that their lives will never be happy or content. I don't see this pressure coming from parents (as one might think). I see it coming from the teens themselves which (I think) originates on social media. The perception is that all the other teens are perfect and can multitask with no stress; they make it look easy. Teens are trying to attain a false perception and when they fail, they feel horrible about themselves. However, they do not always show signs of their distress. They are master actors making it look like they are happy and content. So how can parents and teachers recognize when a teen is struggling?
If your teen is overextended, ask him/her how he/she is coping with such a busy schedule. Ask them how they think they compare to others. Ask them how they handle the stress and what they are doing to take a break from the stress. Teens do not have the same coping skills as adults. They may "cope" by pretending everything is OK when it isn't. Coping skills are typically learned through a disappointment or failure. Teens who avoid failure or jump right to anxiety or depression do not have the benefit of learning from the mistake or failure; they are too busy beating themselves up verbally. Don't be afraid to talk about suicide with your children.
Teens who are (what we used to call) "over achievers" are at risk for anxiety and/or depression. They are overextended trying to check the boxes for the college applications (sports, clubs, volunteer hours, AP classes, etc.). They are not sleeping (another factor that can increase anxiety and depression), not just because they are doing homework late into the night, or are laying awake worrying, they are on their phones looking at others' lives and comparing themselves negatively the posts they read.
Being perfect is impossible. Wanting to be perfect is unrealistic and is a warning sign of a teens setting themselves up to fail. Help your children set realistic goals for themselves; not others. Help your teen take a break; get some sleep; allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. And listen to them when they talk about needing to be perfect.
To view the story from CBS Sunday Morning - click here