When My Daughter Realized She Didn’t Need to be ‘Perfect’

The dam broke when my daughter returned to school after a lengthy COVID quarantine. The pressure of all of the makeup work, coupled with the physical exhaustion of COVID, became too much for her 14-year-old body and mind to handle.

She felt like she would never dig out of her hole. We took appropriate measures to help her at school by requesting an additional study period. She spent her athletic period studying, working on assignments, and taking makeup tests. Evenings were spent pouring over her studies and slowly chipping away at the mountain of work that had accumulated during her sickness.  

teen girl in hat
My daughter was putting too much pressure on herself to be “perfect.” (Twenty20 @devonpendleton)

My daughter’s schoolwork accumulated while our family was sick

Under normal circumstances of illness, I would be on her schedule and ensure she did a little bit of work every day as she felt able. This time was different. The whole family was sick, and most of my days were spent sleeping and trying to regain strength. The work that accumulated felt overwhelming.

Her school was generous, and her teachers did not pressure her. But she pressured herself. A straight ‘A’ student, ranked 2nd in her freshman class, she was not only accustomed to success, but her goal was also perfection.

She broke when she saw her 100 averages slipping away as she struggled to catch up. The tears flowed, and she cried as I hugged her. I understood her despair completely. I felt overwhelmed, and I wasn’t even doing the work. Helping her organize and check items off her list felt like a tremendous responsibility to me.

I let my daughter express her anxiety and frustration

I let her cry and express her frustration, and then I asked a question I frequently ask. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Was it possible her 100 averages were gone? Yes. Was it possible she may not be 2nd in her class? Yes. What’s so wrong with that? 

So that led to my second line of questioning, “What’s it all for? Scholarships? Entrance into a good college? Are you planning to go to Harvard?” I knew the answer was no. She had no aspirations of attending an Ivy League school. At that point, she didn’t even know what she wanted to do in the future.

As I posed these simple questions, her sobs subsided. She thought quietly and realized she had no idea why she was feeling pressure for perfection. I guessed she had easily attained perfection with little effort up to that point, so she thought she was expected to continue. 

Being sick was a gift

We were given a gift. A pause, a respite from the norm, and a chance to reevaluate. After she gathered her thoughts, she could process and have what I thought was a very mature discussion. No, she didn’t have her sights set on Harvard.

However, she did think she was supposed to earn scholarships for whatever school she attended. Any schools she would realistically consider were easily within her grasp for admission. I explained to her that we were going to pay for her college. Her worry and angst weren’t helping anyone. 

I explained that I would much rather have a happy and healthy daughter who enjoys her high school years than force a burden on her that is illogical and, quite frankly, not worth her mental well-being. As the recipient of a full-ride scholarship, I know the benefits of hard work and dedication, but I never worked towards those rewards. I worked hard simply because I felt it was the right thing to do with no prize in mind.  

After we explained things to our daughter, her outlook changed

After she let the facts sink in, we had a new daughter. Her freshman year had been a year of tears, panic attacks, and stress, culminating in the breakdown over the mountain of makeup work looming over her. After we chatted about her future and the question, “why are you doing this?” the remainder of her year and her subsequent sophomore year were met head-on with a new attitude.  

She started enjoying herself more. She stopped focusing on perfection, prioritized relationships and was intentional with her schedule. We saw her health improve and her outlook brighten. What I had previously chalked up to teenage girl issues disappeared.

All because I finally realized she thought she was responsible for her future and that she was expected to be perfect. Perfection was never our goal. I looked at the odds of getting a significant scholarship and realized I couldn’t allow our family to count on that. The competition is intense, even with excellent grades, high test scores, and a complete list of extracurricular activities. Any scholarship she gets will be a bonus, but we can’t depend on it to fund her college education.  

Once the burdens she was never meant to carry were taken away, she could perform at a higher level with lower stress. She was happy, and that made us all happy.

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

More Great Reading:

Why Our Family Didn’t Let College Take Over the High School Experience

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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