Perfectionism in adolescence: ally or enemy in the school environment?


The end of the school year is coming. No more early mornings and cramming for exams. No more stress about receiving grades, comparing them with classmates and teaching them at home. The start of the holidays means the end of one of the main sources of stress for teenage boys and girls.

Although feeling stressed is normal, the levels of stress caused by school have increased in recent years , becoming a growing concern in our society.

In order to try to identify some factors that may be influencing school stress, the EASE project has asked how school stress and psychosomatic complaints (such as headaches or stomach aches) in secondary school students are related , and what role perfectionism and parental expectations play in this matter.

What does it mean to be a perfectionist?

Perfectionism is a multidimensional concept characterized by the tendency to set very high performance standards accompanied by excessively critical evaluations of one’s own behavior. Although the dimensions of perfectionism have been classified differently in academic research, one of the most common classifications establishes three dimensions:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism: displaying excessive personal standards and rigorously evaluating one’s own behavior. That is, being excessively demanding of oneself.
  2. Other-oriented perfectionism: having expectations of perfection from other people, being critical of them when they do not meet these expectations. In other words, being excessively demanding of others.
  3. Socially prescribed perfectionism: perceiving that other people expect you to be perfect and thinking that they will be harsh and punitive judges if you fail to achieve this.

Parental expectations related to school are the beliefs or judgments that parents have about their children’s future achievements. For example, thinking that their child has more than enough ability to achieve excellent results and is not trying hard enough.

While family expectations can help children develop the skills necessary to achieve their academic goals (such as when parents trust and encourage them when they take a difficult test), they can also lead to negative consequences, especially when those expectations are unrealistic or prioritize children’s academic achievements over their emotional health.

Well, from the EASE project we have found that both high school students with high levels of self-oriented perfectionism and those who perceive high family expectations have higher levels of school stress.

In particular, family expectations play a particularly important role in school stress: parents may teach their sons and daughters that perfection and success are crucial to obtaining their love and that, therefore, failure is not acceptable.

Thus, parental expectations may be contributing more directly to school stress than perfectionism, since the latter is a personality trait that develops from these expectations.

The impact on mental and physical health

According to our research, psychosomatic complaints have a lot to do with academic stress, with their level of perfectionism and with their families’ expectations. Thus, students with higher levels of school stress also complain of more psychosomatic discomfort. This relationship also appears with self-oriented perfectionism and parental expectations.

Answering the question in the title of this article, we can say that perfectionism, which involves setting excessive and critical personal standards, is not, at all, an ally in the school environment, and that this level of perfectionism is greatly influenced by unrealistic family expectations.

Therefore, in this article we want to end by offering a series of recommendations to families :

  1. Avoid excessively high academic expectations, such as expecting your children to get very high grades in school. The goal is to encourage them to do their best, rather than passing on family expectations that create additional pressure to excel or always get the best results, which is an unrealistic goal.
  2. Provide positive expectations that encourage them to strive to achieve academic success, but that are tailored to their progress at any given time. For example, if a subject is difficult for them, encourage them to study every day, conveying your confidence that this will improve their results, rather than insisting that they strive for an A.
  3. Pay attention to your children’s possible worries or fears of disappointing other people.
  4. Boost their motivation and self-efficacy with messages that give them confidence that they will do well or reassure them when they experience poor results.
  5. Show them support for any academic outcome, taking into account their perspective and being sensitive to their needs and feelings.

In conclusion, it is positive and desirable to encourage sons and daughters to improve and strive to obtain good academic results, transmitting to them your confidence in their possibilities. However, it is advisable to put the emphasis on progress and personal improvement, instead of insisting on the need to obtain high grades or stand out as the best in the class. In addition, it is important to transmit to them that it is okay if the results are not as expected sometimes, emphasizing that they will always have your support, the support of their family, for whatever they need.

Author Bios: Marta Diez Lopez is Professor of Developmental and Educational Psychology, Antonia Maria Jimenez Iglesias is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology, Carmen Paniagua works in the Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology and Irene Garcia Moya is a Professor of the Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology all at the University of Seville