Parents want the best for their kids, but this can become a damaging trap. From helicopter parenting on the playground to concerns about grades, parents’ rising expectations often go hand-in-hand with increasing criticism and creates an unhealthy perfectionism in their kids.
Students’ perceptions of their parent’s expectations and criticism have ballooned over the past 32 years, and this is strongly connected to their own feelings of perfectionism, a new study shows.
The finding comes from data on more than 20,000 American, Canadian and British undergraduates. British researchers found that this pressure to achieve and the perfectionism it encourages can hurt children’s emotional well-being.
The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as the tendency to demand of others, or of oneself, an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. This kind of intense striving can have mental health consequences.
Given increasing parental pressure for their children to achieve, along with unrealistic ideals represented by social media, more college-aged kids are experiencing the pitfalls of perfectionism.
In a press statement, lead researcher, Thomas Curran, an assistant professor of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “Perfectionism contributes to many psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders.”
“The pressure to conform to perfect ideals has never been greater and could be the basis for an impending public health issue,” the study’s co-author, Andrew P. Hill, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St John University, added.
The authors had first looked at perfectionism among young people in the same three countries — Canada, the United States and Britain — decades ago. They suspected that given the increasing pressure for their children to achieve, along with unrealistic ideals represented by social media, today’s parents would be becoming more anxious and controlling and that more college-aged kids would be experiencing the pitfalls of perfectionism.
Their hypothesis proved to be correct. Young people’s perception of their parents’ expectations were up an average of 40 percent compared to the results in 1989 when the authors’ original analysis was done.
“These trends may help explain increasing mental health issues in young people and suggest this problem will only worsen in the future,” Hill said. “It’s normal for parents to be anxious about their children, but increasingly this anxiety is being interpreted as pressure to be perfect.”
How can parents enable their children to cope even when the culture emphasizes kids not only succeed, but be exceptional and excel? “Focusing on learning and development, not test scores or social media, helps children develop healthy self-esteem, which doesn’t depend on others’ validation or external metrics,” Curran said. It’s also important for parents to be honest and keep it real. “Let your children know that being imperfect, even failing sometimes, is a normal and natural part of life,” he added.
The study is published in Psychological Bulletin.