Pushy parents with high expectations behind rise in ‘perfectionism,’ mental health issues in kids

Study warns that children feeling like they need to be “perfect” for their parents has risen dramatically, almost to the point of a “public health issue.”

LONDON — Increasingly pushy parents are putting their childrens’ mental well-being at risk, warns a new study. Parental pressures have increased over the last three decades, according to the findings, and are linked to an increase in “perfectionism” among students. This can trigger “damaging” mental health consequences such as self-harming and eating disorders.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 20,000 British, American and Canadian college students. They found that young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations and criticism have increased over the past 32 years and are driving them to feel like they must be “perfect.”

“Perfectionism contributes to many psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders,” says lead researcher Dr. Thomas Curran, in a statement. Curran is an assistant professor of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Adds co-author Andrew Hill, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St. John University: “The pressure to conform to perfect ideals has never been greater and could be the basis for an impending public health issue.”

Perfectionism can be transferred from one generation to the next

The researchers explain that perfectionism often becomes a “lifelong” trait. Earlier research has shown that perfectionists become more neurotic and less conscientious as they get older. It can also perpetuate through generations, with perfectionist parents raising perfectionist children.

Curran and Hill previously found that three types of perfectionism were increasing among young people in America, the United Kingdom, and Canada. They suspect that one cause might be that parents are becoming more anxious and controlling. To confirm their hypothesis, they analyzed the findings of other published studies in two analyses. .

The first analysis included 21 studies with figures 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 “large” association with socially prescribed perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionism involves perfectionist standards about the self. Other-oriented perfectionism is perfectionism turned outward, where someone expects others to be perfectionist. Socially prescribed perfectionism is the perception that other people and society require perfection.

The researchers say that the three types of perfectionism overlap and can exacerbate the effects of each other in negative ways. Parental expectations had a larger impact than parental criticism on self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism, according to the findings, so parental expectations may be more damaging than parental criticism.

“Parental expectations have a high cost when they’re perceived as excessive. Young people internalise those expectations and depend on them for their self-esteem,” says Curran. “And when they fail to meet them, as they invariably will, they’ll be critical of themselves for not matching up. To compensate, they strive to be perfect.”

He explains that self-oriented perfectionism was higher for American college students than Canadian or British students, possibly because of more intense academic competition in the U.S.

“These trends may help explain increasing mental health issues in young people and suggest this problem will only worsen in the future,” he says. “It’s normal for parents to be anxious about their children, but increasingly this anxiety is being interpreted as pressure to be perfect.”

Expectations from mom and dad can be damaging

The second analysis incorporated 84 studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 involving more than 23,000 students. Parental expectations, criticism and their combined parental pressure increased during those 32 years, with parental expectations increasing at the fastest rate by far.

“The rate of increase in young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations is remarkable, up an average 40 per cent compared with 1989,” notes Curran.

The research concludes the study was correlational, so it can’t prove that rising parental expectations or criticism caused an increase in perfectionism among college students, only that there is a link between them. However, the authors write that the findings suggest some “troublesome” changes over time.

“Parents are not to blame because they’re reacting anxiously to a hyper-competitive world with ferocious academic pressures, runaway inequality and technological innovations like social media that propagate unrealistic ideals of how we should appear and perform,” explains Curran. “Parents are placing excessive expectations on their children because they think, correctly, that society demands it or their children will fall down the social ladder. It’s ultimately not about parents recalibrating their expectations. It’s about society – our economy, education system and supposed meritocracy – recognising that the pressures we’re putting on young people and their families are unnecessarily overwhelming.”

Dr Curran believes that moms and dads can help their children navigate 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 healthy self-esteem, which doesn’t depend on others’ validation or external metrics.”

The study is published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.