Growing up Generation Z and Gifted: Bomb Cyclone Perfectionism

Mark Hess

10:00 a.m. on a school day in March, I wonder if the school district has made a mistake calling for a snow day. It’s a grey day, calm and nearly 50 degrees. Except for strange looking wispy clouds, it could be any other spring day. Were all the predictions so wrong?  No. Thirty minutes later, I cannot see the street in front of my house through horizontal snow, and the bomb cyclone storm had come as predicted. The first blast of its wind had sounded like someone pounding on our front door. Neighbors were still clearing their property of downed trees and limbs well into the summer months. From a little grey to stormy winds in just minutes, I’ve seen this in my students many times. With generational anxiety in youth at an all-time high, feelings of inadequacy pushing toward the distress level, rejections only a smartphone swipe away, and gifted kids wrapped inside feelings more intensely than others, Generation Z gifted kids wait inside an atmosphere that has the potential for bomb cyclone perfectionism.

In her chapter about perfectionism in Living with Intensities, Linda Silverman cites two research studies that show approximately 1/4th of gifted sixth graders are dysfunctional perfectionists—not neurotically so but conscientiously so. We are all too familiar with these kids as parents, teachers, counsellors, and as perfectionists ourselves. Conscientious perfectionists are keenly aware of their potential, critical of their own performances across a broad spectrum of tasks both large and small, expect success, and want to shine—not just for themselves—but also for those they love and respect. Often school has come so easily, praise has been given so expectedly, and challenges have been so rare, an almost effortless perfection has become a regular part of our gifted kids’ days. As years pass and life and school become more complicated, this chase for perfection might sigh momentarily with satisfaction but often waylays its racers in a cycle of feelings of shame and inadequacy. The most recent study cited in Silverman’s chapter comes from 2000--with most of the data collected in the 1990s when the oldest of our GenZers were just entering kindergarten and the youngest were not yet born. How then, might these perfectionist tendencies have changed for our current Generation Z students? 

“[Bombogenesis] can happen when a cold air mass collides with a warm air mass . . . when a storm’s barometric pressure drops by 24 millibars . . . in 24 hours” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA).

According to data collected in the Monitoring the Future Surveys (1989-2015), 37% of teenagers are neutral, mostly agree, or agree with the statement that “I can’t do anything right.” This is an 11% increase from the millennial low of 26% in 1992. For perfectionists who play out an increasing portion of their lives online and in social media (high school seniors spending twice as much time online each day as compared to 2005), this trend is especially concerning. 

Platforms such as Instagram and Facebook trigger social validation loops—re-wiring one’s brain in search of continuing validation.  For both self-oriented perfectionists who engage in strict self-evaluation and for socially prescribed perfectionists who seek others’ validation, the virtual thumbs up, hearts, and likes potentially add one more layer to a protective, perfectionist cloak.  Consider the perfectionist, posting a small victory on social media, absorbing the validation of likes and positive comments, checking back to see the number growing. “Will this be a record for me?” Now consider this same perfectionist with a future post which does not receive the same number of positive responses (oh, and these gifted minds can certainly store data for comparison!).  “I guess they don’t like me as much as they used to. Other people get more responses than I do. I never deserved it anyway.” Now it becomes paramount that the social-media stage is carefully set and orchestrated to show only the most wonderful version of oneself.  Afterall, look at all the wonderful lives and experiences one sees with each scroll down the page.

But is that the real and authentic version of oneself other people suddenly don’t like so much? Not likely. Is a perfectionist apt to post a failure, an inadequacy, a slight, or an embarrassment? This behavior would actually be one of the healthiest behaviors a perfectionist could venture into . . . this along with even healthier forming and maintaining true connections and friendships. In a generation which is less likely to engage in face-to-face interactions than any other demographic, however, opportunities to show one’s authentic self in person are less likely.  As Brené Brown says in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “If you’ve worked so hard to make everything look just right, the stakes are high when it comes to your authentic self.” Not getting a like on an orchestrated social media post is one thing, but what happens when you believe no one likes your authentic self?

“As the air rises, wind spirals in at the base of the storm.  All bomb cyclones are not hurricanes.  But sometimes, they can take on characteristics that make them look like hurricanes . . . Much of the danger lies in the fact that bomb cyclones can take people by surprise.”  --Daniel Swan, as quoted by NBC News, 10/18/19”

We GenX and Millennial parents look out for our kids like no other generation has before us. With smaller families than in past generations, parents spend more time nurturing each child. Generation Z is growing up more slowly, more protected by the adults in their lives.  Adolescence is extended.  Data trends show that activities like getting a driver’s license, drinking alcohol, having sex, attending parties unsponsored by an adult have been placed on hold—postponed in some cases until college. Adulting is a new social media buzzword—with GenZ twenty-somethings celebrating doing laundry, cooking, paying bills, and shopping for groceries.

We parents are vigilant and protective. We want our children to do well, achieve, earn scholarships which will help pay for mountains of tuition expenses. Many of us might foster perfectionist behavior without meaning to—even with an understanding of perfectionism at work in ourselves. Encouraging achievement, checking homework folders and helping our children pursue passions in after school programs or in athletics, guiding our kids to leadership or public service opportunities which build their scholarship portfolios—our children begin to tie their self-concepts to their performances in and out of the classroom despite our hopes that they develop an intrinsic value for learning and growth.

Twenge reports that GenZers have come to value extrinsic rewards more highly than previous generations. Satisfaction with school—as expressed by 12th grade surveys—is lower than ever. A 4.0 grade point average seems almost low. It used to be perfect. Now how high can a student’s GPA reach with AP and honors classes?  4.5?  5.0? Add to this that an external locus of control correlates with anxiety and depression, and the winds begin to spiral ominously.

WGBH’s stories on the pressure to succeed show us where perfectionism can attach itself even before kindergarten. One parent spoke about how, five months pregnant, she and her husband sought what they thought would be a high-quality daycare situation only to be laughed at for their tardiness in applying. Clinical psychologist David Gleason states, “Increasingly, affluent students are overprotected, over-scheduled and overwhelmed before they have the capacity to manage stress. The parents who are now old enough to have children are themselves products of this very system, so they don’t know anything else.”

“But while any given storm may not turn out to be as apocalyptic as the term bomb cyclone would suggest, you should still take extreme care during any major weather event.  Ideally, no one will freak out at all.  But you should absolutely keep an eye on your local forecasts to know how much you need to prepare.”  --Rachel Feltman for Popular Science, What the Heck is a Bomb Cyclone?

Linda Silverman reminds us that healthier, self-oriented perfectionists had parents who did not communicate perfection; rather, these parents expressed unconditional love and support. Perfectionism and wanting to do well are two different things. Wanting to do well is good if we reframe mistakes as learning experiences. Wanting to do well means risk-making and realizing nothing is mastered without practice. Wanting to do well is healthy growth.  Perfectionism is not.

Even as the skies turn grey, there are ways to encourage safety. In iGen, Twenge offers tips for Generation Z employers, and some of this advice reads as best practices in guiding perfectionists. Growing up slowly, GenZ needs more frequent guidance and reassurance, and as this is a generation eager to do well despite fears of failure, GenZ students will tend to respond well to support. This is a generation that wants to feel safe both physically and emotionally, and perfectionists, in particular, insulate themselves for emotional safety. We’ve heard it before when trying to advise or direct or correct one: “I got it!  I know!  I heard you! Would you please just stop talking about it!” As parents and mentors, we need to keep feedback more frequent, shorter, and direct without coddling. That doesn’t mean, however, we shouldn’t express care and support.  In a virtual world of friendships, in-person relationships are still of high value—maybe even more so. Let’s approach those we love (and ourselves while we’re at it) by always letting them know we are on their side and that it’s safe to be less than perfect. As Twenge states, “Specifically say I want you to succeed.”

This is a generation loaded with talent, a generation who—like all others before it—is finding its place in its own way midst its own challenges: immersion in online media, unhealthy and seemingly immovable divisions in ideologies, a changing climate and the true fears that go along with it. This generation’s oldest members are becoming parents and teachers themselves. A young colleague and gifted girl, a middle school teacher with many gifted kids now in her own classroom, recently told me, “I feel overwhelmed every day by both the possibilities of these kids and the speed of life around them. We start each day in my class by simply being – heads down on our desks with the lights off just like I used to do after lunch when I was in first grade. More than one student has told me this is the best part of their school day. Kids need these mindful moments just to re-group.”

Let’s remember there is pain in perfectionism. Perfectionism is not something to be laughed off or shrugged off or spoken about as if it were an immature behavior one will grow out of. There are true consequences for unhealthy perfectionists. Playing it safe, wrapping oneself in insulated blankets, and hiding one’s true and vulnerable self not only limit our achievement, but these behaviors limit our growth and relationships as well. Perhaps we should start forgiving ourselves today?  Perhaps we all need heads-down-lights-off-mindful moments in the middle of each day. And I say we and us and ourselves quite purposefully, because so often behind a perfectionist stands another.  As Breneé Brown so poignantly states, “It is clear we cannot give our children what we do not have.”

About the Author: Mark Hess has spent 31 years teaching gifted learners.  He is the Gifted Programs Specialist in Colorado Springs District 11, the Pikes Peak Association for Gifted Students president, and state board member for the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented.  As Portable Gifted and Talented, he trains teachers and has published 225 units specifically designed for gifted learners.  Mark has three social-emotional lesson collections due to be published by Great Potential Press in the spring of 2021.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC


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