College student mental health: Why perfectionism is bad for kids

As parents raise both their expectations and how much they criticize their children, college students increasingly try to be — or at least look — perfect. And the toll 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 can be more damaging than parental criticism, the study says.

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

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

Perfectionism — the need to be or to at least appear to be perfect, as well as the belief perfection is possible — has been linked to mental health problems like depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders, according to the study’s lead author, Thomas Curran, assistant professor of psychological and behavioral science 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 facing young adults may only get worse as parental anxiety and pressure rise.

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

According to the study, perfectionism can become a lifelong trait. Researchers cite earlier research showing perfectionists may become more neurotic and less conscientious as they get older. More perfectionism can be passed from parent to child through generations.

Three types of perfectionism

New York City psychotherapist Kathryn Smerling believes parental expectations are one of the biggest problems young people face. “I don’t believe that parents actually understand what harm they are doing by setting expectations for their kids that they either cannot fulfill or do not want to fulfill,” she said.

To some degree, the increase in eating disorders and anxiety, among other mental health issues, can be sparked by “a chasm between who you are and what is expected of you,” said Smerling, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Youths on a treadmill of trying to reach others’ expectations have trouble finding out who they are in the moment, she 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 high societal expectations.

The duo wondered if parents were driving the increase in perfectionism in young people by being more anxious and controlling themselves. So they undertook 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 increasing has previously been met with skepticism,” the two found evidence for it in the three countries. “With rising competitiveness, individualism, economic inequality and pressure to excel at school and college as the societal background, increases in parental expectations and parental criticism offer the most plausible explanation for rising perfectionism to date,” they wrote.

They did two mega-reviews of earlier research. One, examining 21 studies, found moderate association between parental expectation 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 large. They also noted overlap and risk in all three types of perfectionism.

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

“Parental expectations have a high cost when they’re perceived as excessive,” Curran told the association. “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.”

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

The second review of 82 studies that were completed between 1989 and 2021 involved nearly 24,000 college students total. Parental expectation, pressure and criticism all rose over the three decades, but expectations rose the most — about 40%.

Hill and Curran emphasize their research finds a link, but doesn’t prove causation, and that the findings are specific to the countries studied. They believe, though, that parents should pay attention to the potential to do harm.

Changing the approach

Curran told the Deseret News he hopes the study will make parents and society itself more aware of the impact of asking too much of children. The responsibility for change is “on a society that holds way-too-high expectations of kids, especially in school and college. If we can start a conversation about standards, about widening access to college, about scrapping standardized tests in elementary school, those things would be a good start,” he said by email.

Curran said parents believe society demands they put pressure on their kids to succeed or they will fall down the social ladder. That’s why society needs to take the lead in dialing back expectations. He says societal pressures including the economy, educated system and “supposed meritocracy” are “unnecessarily overwhelming.”

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

“Beyond that, it’s for parents to understand that their kids — just like them — are exhaustible humans whose resources are not limitless. Show compassion, unconditional love and focus on learning and development. Those are the things we know help with perfectionism,” he said.

He added, “The best way to communicate expectations is to set them with children and let them know that they’re just goals and not dictates. …Sometimes, for no good reason, we just fail. And that’s OK. We’ll love them all the same.”

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, she noted. But there’s a line parents can cross that creates harm.

She suggests parents first consider what their expectations are. If both parents are involved, they should talk them out together before sharing them with their offspring. And they should seek their child’s input.

“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 arrived at collaboratively and implemented without shame or judgment.

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

Grades drop if assignments are missed or done poorly. An employer might write up a worker who’s 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 getting societal expectations,” she said.

Smerling suggests parents make sure they aren’t projecting their own image on their kids.

Some expectations — to be kind, to be good, to help other people, to be nonviolent — are wonderful familial expectations and values. Respect for others is an expectation parents should have for children.

“But if you expect a child to be an astrophysicist and she had learning differences, that’s not going to happen. If a child’s in a family of doctors and is expected to become a doctor, that sets a child up for being defiant or not choosing their own path,” said Smerling.

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

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

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

How much others’ expectations matter depends in part on who they are, said Sweeny, depending on how much their opinion of us is integrated into our sense of self.”

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

Leave a Comment