Mental Health Of College Students: Why Perfectionism Is Bad For Kids

As parents raise their expectations and criticize their children, college students are increasingly trying to be, or at least appear, perfect. And the cost can be seen in deteriorating mental health, according to a new study by British researchers published by the American Psychological Association.

The impact of expectation may be more damaging than parental criticism, the study says.

Using data from more than 20,000 American, Canadian and British college students, the researchers found that college students in those countries believe their parents’ expectations and criticisms have increased. As a result, young adults have responded with greater perfectionism.

While setting expectations is part of a parent’s job, when it leads to perfectionism, serious problems can arise, experts say.

Perfectionism, the need to be or at least appear perfect, as well as the belief that perfection is possible, has been linked to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders, according to study lead author Thomas Curran, assistant professor of psychological and behavioral sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

His co-author, Andrew P. Hill, said the pressure on young people has never been greater. Hill, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St. John University, warned that the mental health issues young adults face may worsen as parental anxiety and pressure mounts.

“It’s normal for parents to be anxious about their children, but more and more this anxiety is interpreted as pressure to be perfect,” he said.

According to the study, perfectionism can become a lifelong trait. The researchers cite earlier research showing that perfectionists can become more neurotic and less conscientious as they age. Also, perfectionism can be passed from parent to child through generations.

Three types of perfectionism

New York City psychotherapist Kathryn Smerling believes that parental expectations are one of the biggest problems young people face. “I don’t think parents really understand the harm they’re doing by setting expectations for their kids that they can’t meet or don’t want to meet,” she said.

To some extent, the rise in eating disorders and anxiety, among other mental health problems, may be caused by “a gap between who you are and what is expected of you,” said Smerling, who was not involved in the research.

Young people in a rut of trying to meet the expectations of others have trouble figuring out who they are at the moment, he noted.

In previous work, Curran and Hill identified three types of perfectionism that have been growing among young people in the countries they studied: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism. The latter focuses on striving to meet the high expectations of society.

The duo wondered if parents were driving the rise in perfectionism in young people by being more anxious and controlling themselves. So they undertook the analysis of dozens of previous studies. Their findings are published online in the American Psychological Association’s March 2022 Psychological Bulletin.

Although the “idea that overly anxious and controlling parenting was on the rise has previously been met with skepticism,” the two found evidence of it in all three countries. With rising competition, individualism, economic inequality, and pressure to excel in school and college as the social background, rising parental expectations and parental criticism offer the most plausible explanation for the rise of perfectionism to date,” they wrote.

They did two mega-reviews of previous research. One, which examined 21 studies, found a moderate association between parental expectations and criticism in terms of self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism. The association with “socially prescribed” perfectionism, the idea that others and society as a whole require perfection, was great. They also noted overlap and risk in the three types of perfectionism.

The researchers said parental expectations have a greater impact than criticism on self- and other-oriented perfectionism. That means that parents’ expectations can be more damaging than their criticism.

“Parental expectations come at a high cost when they are perceived as excessive,” Curran told the association. “Young people internalize those expectations and depend on them for their self-esteem. And when they don’t, as they invariably will, they will criticize themselves for falling short. To compensate, they strive to be perfect.”

Americans had the highest level of self-directed perfectionism, compared to Canadians and the British.

The second review of 82 studies that were completed between 1989 and 2021 involved nearly 24,000 college students in total. Parental expectations, pressure, and criticism increased over the three decades, but expectations increased more, by about 40%.

Hill and Curran stress that their research finds a link, but does not prove causation, and that the findings are specific to the countries studied. They believe, however, that parents should pay attention to the potential for harm.

changing focus

Curran told the Deseret News that she hopes the study will make parents and society more aware of the impact of asking too much of children. The responsibility for change lies “with a society that has too high expectations for children, especially in school and university. If we can start a conversation about standards, about expanding college access, about getting rid of standardized tests in elementary school, those things would be a good start,” she said via email.

Curran said parents believe that society requires that they push their children to be successful or they will fall down the social ladder. That is why society must take the initiative to lower expectations. He says that social pressures, including the economy, the educational system and “supposed meritocracy” are “unnecessarily overwhelming”.

Curran would like to see parents talk to children about failure and imperfection and how they are a normal part of life. She recommends focusing on learning and development to help kids develop healthy self-esteem so they aren’t at the mercy of external validation.

“Beyond that, it is for parents to understand that their children, just like them, are exhaustible human beings whose resources are not unlimited. Show compassion, unconditional love, and focus on learning and development. Those are the things that we know help with perfectionism,” she said.

She added: “The best way to communicate expectations is to set them with children and let them know that they are just goals and not dictates. … Sometimes, for no good reason, we just fail. And that’s fine. We will love them all equally.”

Melanie McNally, a licensed clinical psychologist in Marquette, Michigan, who provides teletherapy in Florida, Michigan and Illinois, agrees. She said parents shouldn’t just stop having expectations. Some are healthy and even necessary.

Young adults, like children, do well with structure and clear expectations, he noted. But there is a line that parents can cross that creates harm.

She suggests that parents first consider what their expectations are. If both parents are involved, they should be discussed together before sharing with their offspring. And they should seek their son’s opinion.

“Are the expectations too rigid? Too flexible? Make it a collaboration and adjust as needed,” she said.

She also recommends discussing the consequences of not meeting expectations, which should be collaboratively arrived at and implemented without shame or judgment.

“Keep in mind that parents only need to set expectations that directly affect them or their home. Children already have set expectations in other domains,” McNally said.

Grades drop if assignments are missed or done poorly. An employer could report a worker who is always late. Friends who are ignored don’t stick around. “Parents don’t need to add their own set of parameters in areas where young adults are already receiving societal expectations,” she said.

Smerling suggests that parents make sure they don’t project their own image onto their children.

Some expectations (to be kind, to be good, to help other people, not to be violent) are wonderful expectations and family values. Respect for others is an expectation that parents should have for their children.

“But if you expect a child to be an astrophysicist and have learning disabilities, that’s not going to happen. If a child belongs to a family of doctors and is expected to become a doctor, that makes the child challenging or not choosing their own path,” Smerling said.

“A parent can say, ‘This is what I would like for you,'” she added. “But they should add: ‘This is not the only thing I would like for you.'”

Kids should be encouraged to have some healthy expectations for themselves, too, Smerling said.

Kate Sweeny, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, said her own research suggests that expectations are a powerful indicator of how people react to their results. And setting expectations can feel good in the moment or risky because people know they may get less than they expect.

How important others’ expectations are depends in part on who they are, Sweeny said, depending on how much their opinion of us is embedded in our sense of identity.”

The dynamic can be especially painful with parents, “even when maybe you don’t want to care … but it’s still very painful to feel like someone thought you could do better and you fell short,” she said.

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