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Rising parental expectations and criticism linked to perfectionism in college students

Published: 31 March 2022

  •   Featured
  •   Research
A woman shouting at a stressed looking teenager

Rising parental expectations and criticism are linked to an increase in perfectionism among college students, which can have damaging mental health consequences, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and York St John University.

Published by the American Psychological Association(1) today (Thursday 31 March), the research analysed data from over 20,000 British, American and Canadian university students. They found that young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations and criticism have increased over the past 32 years and are linked to an increase in their perfectionism.

Dr Thomas Curran, Assistant Professor of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE and lead researcher, said: “Perfectionism contributes to many psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders.”

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

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

The first meta-analysis included 21 studies with data from more than 7000 university students. Parental expectations and criticism had moderate associations with self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism and 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 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, so parental expectations may be more damaging than parental criticism. 

Tom Curran said: “Parental expectations have a high cost when they’re perceived as excessive. Young people internalize those expectations and depend on them for their self-esteem. 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.”

Self-oriented perfectionism was higher in American college students than Canadian or British students, possibly because of more intense academic competition in the US.  

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

The second meta-analysis included 84 studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 with a total of 23,975 university 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, Tom Curran said.

The studies were conducted in the UK, US and Canada, so the findings can’t be generalized to other cultures. The research is 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 research suggests of troublesome changes over time, according to the researchers. 

So what are parents supposed to do?

Tom Curran said: “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.

“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.” 

Parents 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.

Tom Curran said: “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.” 

Article: “Young People’s Perceptions of Their Parents’ Expectations and Criticism Are Increasing Over Time: Implications for Perfectionism,” (PDF, 0.4MB) by Thomas Curran, PhD, London School of Economics and Political Science, and Andrew P. Hill, PhD, York St John University, Psychological Bulletin, published online March 31, 2022.

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