Perfectionism, Stress, School and our Teenagers

Having worked with the 16+ age group for 14 years this year (still feels like yesterday that I started) it’s been an interesting concept to watch the changes in mindset, challenges and mental health. One of the key things that is becoming more and more noticeable is that a higher number of teenagers and young people are striving to obtain a level of perfectionism that is causing higher levels of:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Worry

And in more extreme cases:

  • Disordered eating
  • Self-harming behaviours

If you read my previous blog ‘Is the world causing our children anxiety‘ you’ll already know that I discussed the influence of social media and technology on our children’s limbic brain development (the part of the brain responsible for emotional behaviours) if not it is worth a perusal to look at the statistics released in the Child Mental Health Report 2017 where we see the links between social media and mental health documented.

So what impact does it have on perfectionism?

Whether we open a magazine to a perfectly air brushed image, or an Instagram account smothered in filters or a Facebook page which has been carefully targeted to its audience we are more aware than ever of the ‘perfect’ images around us. Whilst a small quantity of celebrities are attempting to break down this false illusion what about the day to day? What about the friends who idealise their Facebook to the perfect, the businesses offering a solution to everything? the campaigns leading us to believe that perfect is possible – and worst so – that perfect will make us happy?

When I first went into teaching in 2005 everything was more ‘real’ the illusions of magazines and TV were present but we were yet to be hit by social media (this was the days of dial up internet and Friends Reunited and Myspace after all) and even though mobile phones were available these were still in the times of Nokia’s containing ‘snake’ games not full of apps and film and cameras. So students were able to focus where they needed – in the present.

Fast forward ten years and we are living with our heads in the future…. and therefore with our heads in anxiety.¬†

Lets simplify this as much as we can… when our thought processes are focussed on the past we experience depression/sadness symptoms. When our thought processes are focussed on what hasn’t even happened yet we experience feelings of anxiety (an impending fear) and when we focus our thoughts on the present we are more mindful and in the here and now able to acknowledge our feelings from a more grounded level.

So as social media and the world around us forwards our thinking and focusses on an unobtainable impossible impression what is the education system doing?

With exams in most terms (tests, mocks, accredited exams) coupled with this drive for perfectionism more teenagers than ever are experiencing anxiety, panic attacks or extreme worries within further education. The changes in syllabus, expectations and funding mean that pressures higher and in the latter stage of their further education when university applications are added we are forcing our teenagers and young people to be so heavily focussed on the future that many are finding it near impossible to stay grounded and in the here and now. For parents this can be soul destroying as they worry about the mental wellbeing of their children, and for the young person themselves the joy of each day can be lost as they focus so heavily on ‘what’s next’. This root for perfectionism, coupled with a need for grades and the stress this generates means that anxiety can be running at an all time high.

Now, it is important that we acknowledge that some stress is good for us (eustress – that drives us and motivates us), just as goals are important to keep us focussed, what we need to avoid is cumulative stress created by too many things at once.

So what can we do to support them?

1, Create a study timetable that allows for things that are loved and enjoyed with no expectations but peace and happiness

2, Set goals which are achievable and focus shorter term (e.g. for each half term) to allow us to see our achievements

3, Celebrate successes on the way so that we can acknowledge our work and take breaks to regroup

4, Identify appropriate therapeutic support where anxiety symptoms are not lessening to break the cycle and put us back in control

5, Listen – whilst ‘stress’ can be an overused term if your young person is looking out of sorts or is subdued or more emotional than normal give an opportunity for them to talk to you or a professional

For more details about Nicky’s work with children and teenagers to support reprogramming the mind towards stress and anxiety you can visit or email for an information pack.


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