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There’s No Need to Look Perfect. How to Teach Kids About Vulnerability

What are we teaching our kids about revealing vulnerability? What questions should you be asking yourself and your kids? Do they struggle with the need to look perfect?

There are many current studies highlighting an international rise of depression and suicide. It’s grown to be a rampant issue — one that is more and more likely to affect your life, or the lives of those you love, including your children. Whether or not it’s because of the well-documented rise of depression with increased social media involvement in younger people. whether it’s because symptoms are actually being recognized as what they really are, or better documentation, depression should be grabbing our attention as a culture, and as a world.

Perfectionism and Perfectly Hidden Depression ® are also rising, especially among young people.

How are kids talking about the need to look perfect…

Ever heard of the Stanford Duck Syndrome? 

Caroline Beaton, in this Gen-Y Psychology Today column, quotes a Stanford blogger . “One Stanford blogger explained, “Everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly across this Lake College. But below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.” For Stanford students, the duck syndrome represents a false ease and fronted genius. “Frustration, anxiety, self-doubt, effort, and failure don’t have a place in the Stanford experience.

Where did learning from one’s mistakes go?

How about the Penn face? The student author of this article is warning future graduates of Penn to stay away from the hypocrisy of putting on a smile and trying to look like everything’s going smoothly, when in reality, it’s very difficult.

What parents should be asking themselves about their kids…

On a national morning show several weeks ago in the US, I heard a psychiatrist answer questions about what parents should do if depression is suspected. The interview was showcasing the recent book, “What Made Maddy Run” by Kate Fagan, a story of one young female Penn track star who jumped to her own death.

The answer troubled me. She basically cited classic symptoms of depression — isolating, sleeping too much or not at all, wanting to drop out of things.  It’s true. Maddy Holleran, the young woman in the book, was talking about not enjoying track anymore, even about how much she wasn’t enjoying Penn.  The adults involved didn’t think it was that serious. She didn’t look consistently depressed; she quickly pasted a big smile on her face when taking a selfie, or FaceTiming with friends. She never told anyone she was thinking of and researching suicide.

The psychiatrist’s questions wouldn’t have been enough.

Maddy’s parents agreed to the book in order to help others through their own tragedy. They realize now that there was much more to Maddy’s struggles than they knew.

We all need to be asking the same question.

What parents should be asking themselves…

What I have taught my kids about revealing vulnerability? Parents need to be honest about how comfortable they’ve been sharing mental and emotional struggle. What have I revealed about my own struggles to my kids? What have I modeled for my children and grandchildren about accepting their own vulnerabilities? About admitting mistakes? About giving yourself permission to be depressed or anxious? Have I expected my kid to be perfect?

Not every young person is going to an extremely competitive college. Not all are highly pressured collegiate athletes.

But depression and suicide are increasing in our youth, no matter what their situation. And parents can teach them how to talk about it.

If you haven’t, you could try. Yes — watch for classic depression. But realize it’s not always patently evident. If it’s connected with perfectionism, it could be PHD.

Anti-stigma campaigns may force those with PHD more underground…

Dr. Gordon Flett, a psychology professor at York University in Canada, and an expert on perfectionism, warns of another possibility. He warns that perfectionistic kids who are being exposed to anti-stigma campaigns for better mental health awareness may go underground, due to fear that they’ll be found out. They don’t believe anyone else who looks as perfect as they do could possibly be struggling with thoughts of suicide.  “I try to … make them understand that feeling they have, that they’re the only one that’s feeling this way, is really not the way that it is, that there are so many others who are doing the same thing, that at some point it’s not a personal defect, or flaw, or some shortcoming that is intrinsic to them.”

I’ve counseled too many people over the years who are reeling, just like the Hollerans, from an apparently sudden suicide of a loved one. When it’s a teenager or young adult, the guilt and horror are palpable in the room. Secrets were kept — the actual intensity of whatever was troubling them either never revealed, or only alluded to in a way where a family can rack it up to age-appropriate struggles, or “going through a bad time.”

Adults don’t have control over what their children go through. But we do have control of what we teach them — how to handle things if feeling overwhelmed. We can model openness and honesty.

We can remember that depression can wear many faces.

And they’re not all sad.


Here’s a questionnaireto determine if you may belong on the spectrum of Perfectly Hidden Depression.

You can hear more about Perfectly Hidden Depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.

Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret! It’s perfect for engagements, anniversaries, weddings, or for the person you love!



There’s No Need to Look Perfect. How to Teach Kids About Vulnerability

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who's practiced in Fayetteville, Arkansas for twenty-five years. Her passion for researching Perfectly Hidden Depression began in 2014 and she's currently writing a book to be published next year by New Harbinger. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Mighty and The Good Men Project, among others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a blogger (Https:// and podcaster (SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford). She welcomes your questions and comments -- [email protected]

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APA Reference
Rutherford, D. (2018). There’s No Need to Look Perfect. How to Teach Kids About Vulnerability. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 11 Apr 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 11 Apr 2018
Published on All rights reserved.