Increasing parental expectations associated with perfection

Rising parental expectations and criticism are linked to increasing perfectionism among college students, which can have harmful mental health consequences, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 20,000 American, Canadian and British college students. They found that young people’s awareness of their parents’ expectations and criticism has increased over the past 32 years and is associated with an increase in their level of perfectionism.

“Perfectionism contributes to many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders,” said lead researcher Thomas Curran, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Study co-author Andrew P. Hill, PhD, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at York St. John University, added: “The pressure to conform to perfect ideals has never been greater and could be the basis for an upcoming public health problem. ”

Perfectionism often becomes a lifelong trait, and previous research has shown that perfectionists become more neurotic and less conscientious as they get older. Perfectionism 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 the US, Canada and the UK. They suspected that one cause might be parents becoming more anxious and controlling, so they analyzed the results of other published studies in two meta-analyses for this latest study, published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

The first meta-analysis included 21 studies with data from more than 7,000 college students. Parental expectations and criticism had moderate associations with self- and others-oriented perfectionism and high 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. The three types of perfectionism overlap and can negatively reinforce each other.

Parental expectations had a greater impact than parental criticism on self- and other-centered perfectionism, therefore parental expectations may be more damaging than parental criticism.

“Parent expectations come at a heavy price when they’re found to be excessive,” Curran said. “Young people internalize these expectations and rely on them for their self-esteem. 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.”

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 will only get worse in the future,” Hill said. “It is normal for parents to worry about their children, but this fear is increasingly being interpreted as a pressure to be perfect.”

The second meta-analysis included 84 studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 involving a total of 23,975 college students. Parental expectations, criticism, and associated parental pressures increased over those 32 years, with parental expectations increasing by far the fastest.

“The rate of increase at which young people perceive their parents’ expectations is remarkable,” Curran said, an average increase of 40% compared to 1989.

The studies were conducted in the USA, Canada and the UK, so the results cannot be extrapolated to other cultures. The research is correlative, so it cannot prove that rising expectations or parental criticism have led to increases in perfectionism among college students, only that there is a correlation between them. However, the research points to problematic changes over time, the researchers said.

So what should parents do? “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 said.

“Parents have unreasonable expectations of their children because they rightly think society demands it, or their children will fall down the social ladder,” Curran added. “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.”

Parents 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, Curran said. “Focusing on learning and development, not test scores or social media, helps children develop a healthy sense of self that doesn’t depend on validation by others or external metrics,” he said.

Items: “Young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations and criticisms increase over time: implications for perfectionism,” by Thomas Curran, PhD, London School of Economics and Political Science, and Andrew P. Hill, PhD, York St John university Psychological Bulletinpublished online on March 31, 2022.

Contact: Thomas Curran, PhD can be contacted at [email protected]


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