Dear Dr. Sylvia

Perfectionist Students Can Lose Confidence in High School

March, 2015


My daughter went from being a highly successful middle-schooler to an unsuccessful high-schooler. Grade and social issues and lack of motivation have contributed to a child who now feels depressed and defeated. One high school teacher in particular has been very cruel, telling her that she will never be the success she (my daughter) thinks she will be. I am trying to rebuild her confidence, but it’s not enough.




Perfectionistic students can actually lose confidence any time they move from easier work to a dramatically more challenging and competitive environment. For some children, middle school initiates that problem; while for others, it’s high school or even college. In some ways, your reassurances of high intelligence can actually cause your daughter to worry and feel pressure as much or more than the mean comments of her teacher. That isn’t to say that the teacher’s comments aren’t hurtful. I can’t imagine why the teacher would be saying something like what your daughter has told you, unless your daughter’s putting a different spin on what the teacher is saying. Good teachers usually like to encourage adolescents to follow their dreams, but also to temper their visions with realism. So for example, if your daughter was expecting to get into Harvard or become a star on Broadway, a teacher might try to help her realize that it’s highly competitive to make it into that school and even more competitive to arrive on the Broadway stage. If kids are passionate about these high goals, we suggest they set their goals in the direction of their dreams, but also to pick other safe options that they could enjoy should they need to accept less than their first choices.

Now let’s talk about your reassurances. It’s important to encourage your daughter to believe that if she works hard, she can accomplish high goals. But if she was an all-A student in middle school, it might ease pressure if you point out that high school honors classes are considerably more challenging and that you’ll be pleased if she earns B’s, as long as she makes full effort. You could also remind her that in adult life, people don’t walk around with their grades engraved on their foreheads. Their attitudes, initiative, and creativity are all important parts of what will make them successful. Perseverance and resilience are crucial. All successful people hit walls where they’re disappointed in their own performance; but if they don’t quit, they either overcome their problems or redirect their efforts in alternative positive directions.

You’ve indicated that your daughter feels defeated and acts depressed. If you can’t reassure her successfully, it’s an excellent idea to go to a psychologist for an evaluation to determine how to help her redirect her efforts or determine if there are other underlying problems. Your daughter needs immediate help if the depression has lasted as long as a month.

Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For a free newsletter about perfectionism, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s Articles for Parents and Teachers and submit family questions online at All questions are answered.

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