07.04.2023 change 07.04.2023

Parent pressure does not benefit children, say psychologists

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Excessive expectations of children can expose them to the development of fear of judgement and low self-esteem. On the other hand, parents who expect perfection from their children, also expose themselves to the risk of parental burnout, say researchers from the SWPS University.

“Even the best must be allowed to stumble. Children who are expected to be perfect, often do not have this right,” say Dr. Dorota Szczygieł and Dr. Konrad Piotrowski, psychologists from the SWPS University, who, together with Gao-Xian Lin from the Belgian University of Louvain, analysed the relationship between child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout. 

The study involved 325 parents from Poland who lived in one household with at least one child aged 3 to 19. The conclusions of the study were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

PAP: You have shown a link between child-oriented perfectionism and parental burnout. Do people in today's world strive to have a perfect child?

Dr. Dorota Szczygieł, SWPS University: The increase in individualism, the tendency to focus on one's own goals and achievements, observed in recent decades, forces people to compete with others. If you want to achieve something, you have to be the best, and certainly better than others. The climate of competition drives us to strive for perfection, set high - often too high - requirements. High demands, combined with a critical, often overly critical self-assessment, apply to even such a private sphere of life as parenting.

PAP: How does it manifest itself?

Dr. Konrad Piotrowski, SWPS University: Parents want to fulfil their role in the best possible way, to be a super mom and a super dad, but they also want to have a super child who will cope with the requirements of the culture of individualism and achieve as much as possible. It is hard to blame parents for striving for perfection. This is simply a response to the requirements of the modern world that values winners. On the other hand, the pursuit of a goal should not be 'at all costs', especially when children are involved. The pressure that many parents put on their children does not lead to better chances in life, the opposite - it contributes to many problems in such children, which in turn interferes with their development.

PAP: How does parental perfectionism manifest itself in upbringing?

DS: Parents' expectations can manifest themselves in three ways. Firstly, parents can set high standards for their children's performance, expecting them to strive for excellence in everything they do, to give 100 percent every time they do something; to finish what has been started, always to the very end - and not to give up. Secondly, they can expect orderliness, good organization, neatness, good behaviour. If these expectations are excessive, too high for the child's abilities - and this is what we deal with in the case of parental perfectionism - there is something that makes the situation even worse, which is the parent's feeling that the child does not live up to these expectations. We call it a divergence.

PAP: And then what? And what are the threats?

DS: The parent is then convinced that the child is not good enough, fast enough, smart enough, hardworking enough, etc., for the parent's expectations. But let's emphasize: these parental demands are unrealistic and excessive. How could a child fulfil them?

KP: For children, being the recipient of such expectations leads to the development of fear of judgment, low self-esteem, and in some cases even mental disorders such as eating disorders or depression. It also leads to the development of dysfunctional forms of perfectionism, where the child, then the teenager, and finally the adult, feel that no matter what they do, there is always something wrong, that they are never good enough. This is the source of many other problems, such as addictions and affective disorders.

PAP: Your study also shows that a parent who expects perfection from their children also puts heavy burdens on themselves, exposing themselves to the risk of parental burnout.

DS: The risk increases with the level of discrepancy between the goals the parent sets for the child - and how the child deals with them. The parent who believes that the child is not perfect enough - experiences stress and finally burns out. In other words, it's not high standards themselves, but the belief that a child doesn't meet these standards contributes to parental burnout. Of course, there may be a situation where a parent has very high expectations, and the child fully meets these expectations. In this situation, the risk of burnout will be lower. But in reality, such situations are rare. Research shows that the higher the expectations, the higher the level of discrepancy. In a word, ordinary children are rarely able to fulfil their parents' dream of a perfect child.

PAP: Is it common to impose high standards on children?

KP: No research has been conducted so far that allows us to say that a certain percentage of parents have excessive expectations of their children. This is not something that can be easily quantified as there is no clear indicator that one requirement is realistic and another is not. It also depends on the children and their abilities. If we are dealing with a typical, average child, it is unrealistic for a parent to expect that child to receive a distinction for high grades in every grade. But there are also children for whom school learning comes easily and getting high grades is not a problem for them, so their situation is different. But in both cases, the problem will be the rigidity that comes with perfectionism. Even the best must be allowed to stumble. Children who are expected to be perfect often do not have this right. Also remember that not being a perfectionist does not mean having low ambitions or not striving for achievement. These are two different things. What distinguishes perfectionists, including those focused on children, is the fact that they cannot accept that their ambitions are not fulfilled. They cannot react in a healthy way to failures, they criticize, insult, strive to achieve goals at the expense of their own health or the health (physical and mental) of their children.

PAP: How common is this phenomenon? When did it start (in Poland?) or when did it become common?

KP: What we can say about the prevalence of child-oriented perfectionism is that at the population level, it has been increasing in recent decades. Since the 1980s, we've expected more and more from ourselves and from others. But the percentage of parents with high levels of child-oriented perfectionism is yet to be discovered. However, there have been several studies on how often people expect too much of themselves. In groups of teenagers and young adults, about 30-40 percent experience maladaptive perfectionism, i.e. the belief that even the best efforts they are able to put into a task are not sufficient.

PAP: How to convince parents to stop comparing their children with an unrealistic idea of what they should be like?

DS: It seems obvious, but it is often difficult to change parents' attitudes. Perfectionism is not a trait that is easy to modify. Our study suggests a different solution. Given the mitigating effect of emotional intelligence, we believe that the risk of parental burnout due to child-oriented perfectionism can be minimized if parents increase its level. In other words, it would be beneficial and helpful for practitioners to provide parents who exhibit high child-oriented perfectionism with psychological help to improve their emotional intelligence. This includes skills such as identifying, understanding, regulating and using emotions. (PAP)

Anna Mikołajczyk-Kłębek

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