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How Parents' Good Intentions Can Inadvertently Increase Girls' Anxiety

Unhealthy perfectionism has become a growing contributor to teens' rising anxiety.

Many tweens and teens struggle with anxiety and perfectionism, and parents often bemoan that "she puts so much pressure on herself." Rachel Simmons, an expert on girls' development and the author of Enough As She Is, however, says that perception puts even more pressure on kids. "The very phrasing of the statement — 'on herself' — lays blame for distress at the feet of our teens, rather than a culture that is stoking the flames of their anxiety," she writes. "It puts the onus for change on kids — just chill, we seem to be saying, and you’ll be okay!" With a recent study finding a 33 percent spike in the number of teens who feel they have to be perfect to win approval, including from their friends and parents, it's more important than ever to acknowledge what teens are going through and help them develop strategies to deal with perfectionism.

Perfectionism includes both excessively high standards for success and significant self-criticism, and while it can drive teens to achieve great heights, it can also cause anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide. Since the early 2000s, studies show that increasing numbers of young adults report feeling pressure to be perfect in every domain, including schoolwork, extracurricular activities, social life, and appearance. Simultaneously, parents are feeling greater pressure to raise high-achieving children; researchers even have a name for this phenomenon: "child-contingent self-esteem" or, as Simmons describes, "the tendency for a parent to base their own self-worth on the success of their child."

When teens feel that their parents' approval is dependent on high performance, Simmons explains, they "are plagued by the feeling they’ve let others down, whether it be by bottoming out on a test score, missing a shot on goal or getting a 'no' from a first-choice college…. Students perform successfully online while struggling in silence, quietly fearing everyone is smarter and more competent than they are." Then when parents tell teens not to put so much pressure on themselves, their advice often backfires: "When we then tell teens that their wellness is in their own hands, something they might fix if only they relieved themselves of the burden... it has the opposite effect. We only add to their sense of shame that they have failed to measure up."

Fortunately, there are a few steps that parents can take to start helping their teens reduce their stress and anxiety. Changing the language you use to discuss this topic is a helpful way to start a conversation. Instead of telling teens not to put pressure on themselves, Simmons suggests saying something like "It’s so hard right now to feel like anyone is successful enough... I hope you’ll tell me if I can do anything to make things easier." Along these lines, recognizing that teens live in a stressful environment, with demands from school, activities, and friends, and validating how difficult that can be goes a long way as many teens crave greater empathy and understanding from their parents about these challenges. Parents can also help teens develop strategies to address their perfectionism with the help of age-appropriate resources like those highlighted below.

Finally, Simmons asserts, "make sure your actions match your words." She reports that "many teenagers I’ve talked to call their parents’ bluff when told that they just 'want you to be happy.' They suspect what their parents secretly want is a high GPA." One study found that a strong parental emphasis on achievement, particularly when associated with perceived parental criticism, actually led to lower school performance. In the end, Simmons reminds us, "most parents have more in common with their teens than they realize. Let’s retire the bootstrap mentality and stop telling our teens that their stress is self-imposed."

To read more, visit the Washington Post, or browse our recommendations of resources for girls and their parents below.

Resources to Deal with Perfectionism

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Beatrice Bottomwell has never made even a single mistake in her nine years alive — in fact, her whole town knows her as The Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes. But when she almost makes her first right before the big talent show, she's rattled. Suddenly, she starts avoiding things she used to love, just in case she makes a mistake while she's doing them. However, when the inevitable happens and she does make a — very public and messy — mistake, something amazing happens: she laughs it off! It turns out that life is more fun when you realize that mistakes can be overcome... and that no one is perfect. This charming picture book will encourage kids to shake off their mistakes and get ready to try again.

Too Perfect

Too Perfect

Written by: Trudy Ludwig
Illustrated by: Lisa Fields
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

As far as Maisie can see, Kayla is perfect. She's pretty, she has cool clothes, she gets straight As, and she's a soccer star — what's not to like about being Kayla? But when Maisie and Kayla have to work together on a school project, Maisie starts to see that Kayla may seem perfect... but she's not happy. She's always stressed, she lashes out at her friends, and she never feels like she measures up. Kids will likely recognize parts of themselves in both Maisie and Kayla, making it easy for them to see how the drive for perfection can be more hurtful than helpful.

What To Do When You Worry Too Much

A Kid's Guide To Overcoming Anxiety

What To Do When You Worry Too Much

A Kid's Guide To Overcoming Anxiety

Written by: Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.
Illustrated by: Bonnie Matthews
Recommended Age: 7 - 12

All children worry, but some kids begin to feel like captives of their fears, seeking reassurance over and over again or avoiding situations that cause anxiety at all costs. This interactive self-help book uses age-appropriate language to introduce cognitive-behavioral techniques that provide anxious kids with tools and techniques to identify and manage their own anxiety, so they can feel ready to take on the world! Encouraging and positive, this book helps kids identify the line between regular worries and anxiety that has begun to affect their life in a negative way. Parents of younger children can read it aloud and discuss the concepts with their little worrier, while older kids can use it independently to better understand and manage their fears.

What To Do When Mistakes Make You Quake

A Kid's Guide to Accepting Imperfection

What To Do When Mistakes Make You Quake

A Kid's Guide to Accepting Imperfection

Recommended Age: 7 - 12

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes... but for some kids, the possibility is terrifying. Perfectionism can trap kids in their worries, and even discourage them from trying something new and challenging in case they don't measure up. And with self-critical thoughts raging, it's hard to build confidence. Fortunately, with this interactive book, kids can learn to use cognitive behavioral approaches to understand their worries, quiet critical thoughts, and cope with mistakes. Encouraging and empowering, this accessible guide will help kids learn to live with imperfection and motivate them to push their limits.

A Smart Girl's Guide: Worry

A Smart Girl's Guide: Worry

Recommended Age: 8 - 12

It's normal to worry about everything, from the little stuff ("Does my hair look silly this morning?") to the big stuff ("Mom and Dad are arguing again.") Sometimes, girls even worry about the fun stuff, like going to a slumber party or trying an exciting (but tough) new activity. Fortunately, there are ways that you can learn to take charge of your worries so that you can overcome fears, stay calm, and feel confident. With quizzes, proven techniques, and advice from real girls, this book will help you take on your worries so you feel in control.

The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens

Mindfulness Skills to Help You Deal with Stress

The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens

Mindfulness Skills to Help You Deal with Stress

Written by: Gina Biegel MA LMFT
Recommended Age: 13 and up

With everything going on in their lives and world, it's no wonder that 70% of teens report feeling stressed out. The good news is that if teens can learn a few practical and powerful techniques for managing stress now, they'll have the skills they need to handle problems and challenging emotions both in high school and beyond. This workbook teaches teens mindfulness techniques, an approach that helps them to gain mindful awareness of their bodies and their emotions, as a way to help them relax, prioritize, and keep calm during stressful times. The end result is a new feeling of confidence, resilience, and strength that teens can carry with them as they set out on adult life.

The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens

Activities to Help You Reduce Anxiety and Get Things Done

The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens

Activities to Help You Reduce Anxiety and Get Things Done

Recommended Age: 13 and up

The desire to be perfect can go awry, and when it does, teens can stress themselves out — or delay doing anything at all for fear of a mistake. The truth is that no one is perfect, so learning to be good enough and battle perfectionist thoughts is a key skill for teens to master. In this workbook, you'll learn to identify perfectionism, spot the positive and negative aspects of it, and manage expectations — both others' and your own — so that you can perform at your best while still accepting who you are. With accessible tricks and techniques, this book will boost self-confidence and help teens achieve their goals.

The Opposite of Worry

The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears

The Opposite of Worry

The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears

Written by: Lawrence J. Cohen

One of the nearly universal unpleasant emotions that children experience is fear and worry; from the monster in the closet to speaking in front of the class, it’s a rare kid who's anxiety-free! And as many parents discover, logic and reassurance often don't work, leaving them at a loss for how to help their kids. Lawrence J. Cohen, the author of Playful Parenting, shows parents how lighthearted parenting techniques — including lots of emphasis on physical play — can help kids and their parents overcome everything from temporary nerves to ongoing fears.

The Gift of Failure

How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

The Gift of Failure

How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Written by: Jessica Lahey

As a parent, it's easy to fall into the instinct to protect your child from hurt — even if that means the disappointment and frustration that comes from failing. But as teacher and writer Jessica Lahey explains, how to fail — and how to get up, dust yourself off, and try again — is a key skill that kids need to learn young, when the stakes are still low. In her book, Lahey lays out the case for allowing kids to fail, and to feel the full emotional brunt of that failure, and shows parents how to model and teach resiliency and problem-solving. Individual chapters target particular challenges like homework, report cards, and sports. This celebration of the value of reaching high and missing the mark will make you think differently about how you respond to your child's mistakes and problems.

Enough As She Is

How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives

Enough As She Is

How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives

Written by: Rachel Simmons

Although girls seem to be more "successful" than ever today, outpacing boys in GPA, college enrollment, and more, they're also reporting feeling overwhelmed by the need to be exceptional at everything. This book takes a look below the put-together surface that girls project to the world, and provides practical tips for parents to help them reduce negative thoughts, embrace risk and authenticity, and prioritize feeling confident and happy as the ultimate sign of success. Best-selling parenting author Rachel Simmons relies on in-depth case studies and careful research to create both a portrait of the challenges facing girls today and a road map to help girls create their own paths to happy, healthy lives.

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