The study warns that the sense that children need to be “perfect” for their parents has increased dramatically, almost to the point of becoming a “public health issue.”
LONDON – Increasingly pushy parents are putting their children’s mental well-being at risk, a new study warns. Parental pressure has increased over the past three decades, the results found, and is associated with a rise in ‘perfectionism’ among students. This can trigger “damaging” psychological consequences such as self-harm and eating disorders.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from more than 20,000 British, American and Canadian college students. They found that young people’s awareness of their parents’ expectations and criticism has increased over the past 32 years, making them feel like they need to be “perfect”.
“Perfectionism contributes to many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders,” says lead researcher Dr. Thomas Curran in a statement. Curran is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Co-author Andrew Hill, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at York St John University, adds: “The pressure to conform to perfect ideals has never been greater and could lay the basis for an impending public health problem be.”
Perfectionism can be passed from one generation to the next
The researchers explain that perfectionism often becomes a “lifelong” trait. Previous research has shown that perfectionists become more neurotic and less conscientious as they age. It can also continue across generations, with perfectionist parents raising perfectionist children.
Curran and Hill previously found that three types of perfectionism are increasing among young people in America, Britain and Canada. They suspect that one reason could be that parents become more anxious and controlling. To confirm their hypothesis, they analyzed the results of other published studies in two analyses. .
The first analysis included 21 studies with numbers from more than 7,000 college students.
Parental expectations and criticism had “moderate” associations with self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism. There was also a “big” association with socially mandated perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionism involves perfectionist standards about the self. Other-oriented perfectionism is outward-looking perfectionism, where someone expects perfectionism from others. Socially mandated perfectionism is the perception that other people and society demand perfection.
Researchers say the three types of perfectionism overlap and can reinforce each other’s effects in negative ways. Parental expectations were found to have a greater impact than parental criticism on self- and other-oriented perfectionism, so parental expectations may be more damaging than parental criticism.
“Parents’ expectations come at a high cost when they are felt to be excessive. Young people internalize these expectations and rely on them for their self-esteem,” says Curran. “And if they don’t fulfill them, which they invariably will, they will criticize themselves for not matching.” To compensate, they strive to be perfect.”
He explains that self-oriented perfectionism was higher among American college students than among Canadian or British students, possibly due to more intense academic competition in the US
“These trends could help explain the increasing mental health problems among young people and suggest that this problem is only going to get worse in the future,” he says. “It is normal for parents to worry about their children, but this fear is increasingly being interpreted as a pressure to be perfect.”
Expectations from Mom and Dad can be harmful
The second analysis included 84 studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 and involving more than 23,000 students. Parental expectations, criticism, and associated parental pressure increased over those 32 years, with parental expectations increasing by far the fastest.
“The rate of increase in young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations is remarkable, increasing by an average of 40 percent compared to 1989,” notes Curran.
The study concludes that the study was correlative, so it cannot prove that rising expectations or parental criticism led to increases in perfectionism among college students, only that there is a correlation between them. However, the authors write that the results suggest some “pesky” changes over time.
“Parents aren’t to blame for reacting anxiously to a hyper-competitive world with fierce academic pressures, rampant inequality, and technological innovations like social media that propagate unrealistic ideals of how we should appear and behave,” Curran explains. “Parents place excessive expectations on their children, rightly thinking that society demands it, or their children will fall down the social ladder. Ultimately, it’s not about parents recalibrating their expectations. It is about society – our economy, the education system and the supposed meritocracy – recognizing that the pressure we are putting on young people and their families is unnecessarily overwhelming.”
dr Curran believes that mothers and fathers can help their children deal with societal pressures in a healthy way by teaching them that failure or imperfection is a normal and natural part of life. “Focusing on learning and development, not test scores or social media, helps children develop a healthy self-esteem that doesn’t depend on validation by others or external metrics.”
The study is published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.