Parental pressure linked to rise in student perfectionism

Researchers warn of ‘impending public health issue’ as excessive demands placed on students to excel

April 1, 2022
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Students are increasingly putting pressure on themselves to be perfect – and this has been linked to rising parental expectations.

A new study has found that over the past three decades, young people have reported feeling more pressure to perform from their parents, who worry that failure at university will cause them to struggle in a hyper-competitive world.

At the same time, researchers tracked a rise in perfectionism, which they warned can become a lifelong trait and contribute 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,” study co-author Andrew Hill, professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St John University, warned.

He and Thomas Curran, assistant professor of psychological and behavioural science at the London School of Economics, analysed data from previous studies relating to more than 20,000 US, Canadian and British university students over the past 32 years.

Dr Curran described the increase in young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations as “remarkable” after identifying a 40 per cent rise today compared with 1989.

This had the biggest impact on a type of perfectionism known as “socially prescribed perfectionism”, or the perception that other people and society require perfection. It had a moderate association with two other types of perfectionism: “self-oriented perfectionism”, which involves perfectionist standards about the self, and “other-oriented perfectionism”, where someone expects others to be perfectionist.

“Parental expectations have a high cost when they’re perceived as excessive,” Dr Curran said. “Young people internalise 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.”

Although the research – published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin – only identified a link between perfectionism and parental expectations and did not show one was caused by the other, Professor Hill said the findings pointed to worrying trends that “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,” he added.

Despite the excessive expectations they are placing on their children, Dr Curran said societal demands are to blame, not the parents themselves, because they are only “reacting anxiously” to factors including academic pressures, runaway inequality and technological innovations such as social media that “propagate unrealistic ideals of how we should appear and perform”.

“It’s ultimately not about parents recalibrating their expectations,” he said. “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.”

To help relieve the pressure on young people, the researchers said parents should help their children develop better self-esteem by teaching them that failure and imperfection is a normal part of life.

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