Perfectionism on the Rise: How Parental Expectations and Criticism Affect College Students’ Mental Health

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According to a new study published by the American Psychological Association, rising parental expectations and criticism are linked to an increase in perfectionism among college students.

The research, which analyzed data from more than 20,000 students in America, Canada and Britain, found that young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations and criticism have increased over the past 32 years. This rise in perfectionism often has damaging mental health consequences, with prior research showing 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’s previous research found that perfectionism is on the rise among young people in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. Their new study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, set out to explore possible causes of this trend. After analyzing the findings of other published studies in two meta-analyses, they found that parental expectations and criticism are significant contributing factors to perfectionism.

The first meta-analysis included data from 21 studies involving more than 7,000 college students. The researchers found moderate associations between parental expectations and criticism and self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism, and a large association between these factors and socially prescribed perfectionism. Their second meta-analysis included data from 24 studies involving more than 8,000 participants of all ages. This analysis confirmed the findings of the first meta-analysis, with additional evidence that parental expectations and criticism are also associated with self-criticism and doubts about actions.

The findings of the study showed that parental expectations have a larger impact than parental criticism on self-oriented and other-oriented perfectionism. This means that parental expectations may be more damaging than parental criticism. The study also found that self-oriented perfectionism was higher for American college students than Canadian or British students. This is possibly because of the more intense academic competition in the United States.

The second meta-analysis included 84 studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 with a total of 23,975 college students. The results of this analysis showed that parental expectations, criticism and their combined parental pressure have all increased during those 32 years, with parental expectations increasing at the fastest rate. These findings suggest that parents are putting more pressure on their children to succeed academically, which may be contributing to the increased levels of perfectionism in young adults.

Taken together, these findings suggest that parents can play a role in fostering or discouraging perfectionism in their children. They also highlight the need for further research to explore how best to support young people who may be struggling with perfectionism has been on the rise in recent years, but its causes remain largely unexplored.

So what are parents supposed to do? It’s difficult to say, given that the root of the problem lies not with them, but with society at large. Parents are 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. They are placing excessive expectations on their children because they think, correctly, that society demands it or their children will fall down the social ladder. In reality, it is society—our economy, education system and supposed meritocracy—that needs to recognize that the pressures we’re putting on young people and their families are unnecessarily overwhelming. Only then can we begin to ease up on the pressure cooker that is modern life.

It’s important for parents to remember that, as their children grow up and face increasing societal pressures, they will need guidance on how to deal with failure and imperfection. Helping children develop a healthy self-esteem is one of the most important things parents can do for them. For more information on how to raise resilient and confident kids, read our Parenting articles.

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