It has been long proposed that perfectionism is a risk factor that contributes to the development and maintenance of a variety of anxiety symptoms. Cross-sectional studies with children and adolescents showed that both perfectionistic strivings and concerns are positively related to anxiety. However, the question of whether perfectionistic concerns represent a risk factor for the development of anxiety in adolescents is still unanswered, as are the questions of whether perfectionistic strivings play a role and whether the longitudinal perfectionism–anxiety relationships are reciprocal. We tried to answer these questions in the present research.
To this aim, we employed a correlational longitudinal design with three waves spaced four to five months apart (overall nine months). Participants were 489 adolescents (54% female) aged 12 to 19 years (mean age at Time 1 was 15.9). We assessed perfectionism with two widely used scales: the Child-Adolescent Perfectionism Scale (Flett et al., 2016) and the Multidimensional Perfectioniosm Scale (Frost et al., 1990). Anxiety symptoms in the past three months were assessed with the self-report version of the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (Birmaher et al., 1997). After confirming longitudinal measurement invariance for both constructs, we conducted cross-lagged analyses in Mplus using the maximum likelihood robust estimator and followed a model comparison approach. We also conducted multi-group analyses to test for possible moderation effects of gender and age.
As expected, results showed a positive effect from perfectionistic concerns to anxiety symptoms: Perfectionistic concerns predicted longitudinal increases in adolescents’ anxiety symptoms whereas perfectionistic strivings did not. In addition, anxiety symptoms did not predict increases in perfectionism. The results were the same for girls and boys, but age differences were found.
Adolescents who perceived that others had perfectionistic expectations of them and who were concerned about making mistakes and uncertain about their actions tended to experience increased anxiety symptoms over time. The long proposed hypothesis that perfectionism represents a risk factor contributing to the development and maintenance of anxiety symptoms in adolescence found support in the present study. Interestingly, this effect was restricted to middle-to-late adolescents (16-19 years) whereas it was nonsignificant for early-to-middle adolescents (12-15 years). One possible explanation is the fact that cognitive abilities, self-consciousness, awareness of social standards, and susceptibility to evaluative feedback and to others’ achievement expectations increase in adolescence. In addition, it has been shown that older adolescents report higher levels of anxiety symptoms than younger adolescents. Hence, it is possible that, for these reasons, perfectionistic concerns represent a risk factor for the development and maintenance of anxiety symptoms mainly for older adolescents.