As a child and adolescent psychotherapist, I was invited to a local high school to speak to parents about perfectionistic kids. Kids who are obsessed with good grades, high GPAs, perfect performances, etc. Although these kids seem like dreamy kids from a distance—great grades, hard working, and well behaved, they are actually a handful. Ridden with anxiety about their next assignment, paper, quiz, and test, they stay up half the night, every night, studying after a full day of school and extracurricular activities. They are perpetually exhausted, rarely relaxed, and forever neurotic about their life. The price they pay is high because when they crack, they are a mess. Panic attacks, depression, and somatic complaints abound. Essentially, everyday is a crisis because their entire self worth depends on their next accomplishment. In their eyes, they are only as good as their next achievement. So, how does a parent a help? Understanding their developmental stage is a good start. Steps towards independence force an adolescent to think about who they are in relationship to the world. Are they a good student? Are they funny? Are they athletic, artistic, musical, pretty, smart, popular, goth, punk, serious, etc. They have gobs of choices to make every day that dictate who they are and who they will be in the world. That is a lot of pressure. Suddenly, the child's focus shifts from caring about what their parents think to caring about what their friends and the outside world think. In other words, increased independence forces them to reconsolidate their identity, which is often referred to as identity formation. Developmentally, identity formation is the most difficult developmental challenge of the human lifespan. Basically, it’s the time in a human being’s life when they are required to figure out who they are in relation to the world, and the world is an overwhelmingly competitive and complicated place. Because teens are in the process of consolidating their identity, they are vulnerable because they don't know, for certain, who they are, which causes a great deal of self-consciousness, confusion, conflict, and uncertainty. Also, because an adolescent's identity is not completely formed, they spend a lot of time fighting with themselves about who they are. After all, they thought they were smart, until they discovered there are 50 kids smarter than them in the 9th grade. Perhaps they thought they were artistic, until 2 other kids received the art award. So, the battle about who they are constantly wages in their head and it is exhausting. Many teens quiet the combat in their heads by relying on data from the outside world to inform them about who they are. For this reason, data from the outside world carries a great amount of weight. Yet, if the data is negative, for example, a bad grade or a rejecting friend, it can decimate the adolescent's vulnerable identity. In other words, it can leave the teen feeling like their world is crashing in on them because now they have no idea who they are. Imagine for a moment that an person's identity has a structure. A teenager’s identity has a foundation and one or two support beams holding it up, but most of the structure is in the process of being built, so the structure itself is fragile. It is not strong or consolidated yet. An adult’s identity has many solid and stable support beams-- because an adult has had a tremendous amount of time to consolidate their identity. It is stable. The difference is substantial. So, if a rock is thrown at an adult’s identity, it might leave a dent or knock out a panel, but the structure remains intact. However, if a rock is thrown at a teenager’s identity, it might knock it down. So, there is the catch 22. Teenagers are looking for data from the outside world to help them figure out who they are, but sometimes the data is negative, like a bad grade, a lost tennis match, or a rejecting friend, and because a teenager’s identity is fragile, it can knock them down for a bit. Thus, many teens desperately try to avoid this pain by ensuring they achieve. Understanding their predicament is the first step towards helping them. 1.Empathize. Say, “Sometimes, Im afraid you feel like you are only as good as your next grade. That's hard. That's a lot of pressure. I get why you are so upset.” “You are worried that you are not good enough. You need that A to tell you that you are good enough. I get it. I used to feel like that.” “You need proof from the outside world that you are smart. I understand. You can't take my word for it any more because you have to know it for yourself. I understand.” 2.Validate character over achievement. Instead of waiting for a good grade to say, “good job,” try to acknowledge the hard work along the way. “You are studying so hard. I'm so proud of your effort. That means more to me than the grade you end up with.” Also, complementing them for being thoughtful, kind, and empathic should be more frequent than validating them for grades or achievements. 3.Instead of saying, “I love you.” Say, “I Love who you are.” 4. Tell them a compelling story about when they were very young. For example, maybe they risked their neck to save a baby bird, or stood up to a bully in preschool. Perhaps, they protected their little sister from an aggressive dog, or helped their Nana so she would not fall. Remind them of who they are. Anchor them with a story from their past which reflects their character. 5.Remind them that nobody remembers their GPA after the age of 20. 6.Tell them stories of professional athletes and celebrities placing character before achievement. 7. Model fun for them. Take a break from a work project and start a pillow fight with them or ask them to make slime with you while you watch Pitch Perfect Two. Laugh. Contrary to popular opinion, achievement does not facilitate a child's sense of self. The child's experience of empathy is what helps a child develop a secure sense of self. After all, what a human being feels is the core of who they are. When a parent understands a child's feelings, they are validating who the child is. Raise a secure child. Parent With Empathy, Dr Erin Leonard