Praise and Perfectionism

When I was just starting out as a teacher, I used praise pretty liberally with my students. If I thought a student had done really well on a paper they turned in, I’d give them a high five and say, “You are so smart!” It seems pretty innocuous, but praising teens for intelligence rather than for work ethic is actually correlated pretty closely with encouraging perfectionistic tendencies.

In one study, a group of fifth graders were given an exam of difficult problems. Once the students had finished, researchers told each student they had done well (regardless of their actual performance.) Half of the students were told, “You must be smart to have done this well.” The other half were told, “You must have worked hard to have done this well.”

All students were given a second exam and afterward were told they did not do well. Students previously praised for intelligence attributed their low scores to their ability and reported enjoying taking the test less than their counterparts. Students praised for their effort attributed their low scores to not working hard enough. The students were then allowed to choose a task. Students praised for intelligence typically chose a task they knew they would do well on. Students praised for effort typically chose a task they might learn something from.

It’s hard not to praise teens for being smart or talented or gifted, because as parents and educators we truly believe they are! But it’s dangerous when teens start to define themselves by their performance because they leave themselves no wiggle room for failure. Adolescence should be a time when teens are taking risks, trying new things and yes, failing, and then learning valuable lessons from their mistakes. If teens feel a pressure to be perfect they lose out on a huge part of their development. As adults we want to help the teens in our lives develop an identity that allows for them to work hard, be intellectually curious and mess up sometimes.

The school year is starting and your teen will be facing increasing pressure from school work, extracurricular activities and their social circle. How can you help? Start with the language you use to praise your teen. Praise them for their effort rather than their performance:

Did your teen become first chair at orchestra regionals?

DO SAY: “Miranda, I heard you practicing last night- you really worked hard and earned your chair. I’m so proud of you!”

AVOID: “Miranda, you are such a talented violinist!”

Did your teen get an A on their math test?

DO SAY: “Dylan, I noticed you’ve been going to tutoring every day this week. All that hard work really paid off! Congratulations!”

AVOID: “Dylan, you have always been so good at math!”

It’s hard to use effort based language consistently, so as an adult remember to give yourself a break- you don’t have to be perfect either! If you would like some help along the way, Colorado Teen Therapy would love to work with you and your teen! Give us a call at 720.441.3714.


P.S.  We know that one area where teens really struggle with perfectionism is with their beliefs about their body image.  If your teen struggles with a negative body image, check out our new Teen Group starting in a few weeks!

Jamie Doak

Jamie Doak

I'm a former English teacher, school mental health counselor, recovering perfectionist and therapist at Colorado Teen Therapy. I love working with middle and high school girls who struggle with stress, anxiety, body image and perfectionism to help them shed the pressures of who they think they are supposed to be and embrace the strong, confident young woman they already are! When I'm not working with teens, I enjoy camping, reading, hanging out with my dog, Hudson, and watching movies and/or shows that feature Benedict Cumberbatch.

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