According to new research, perfectionism is on the rise among young adults, alongside increases in critical parenting and parental expectations. The study authors speculate that an increasingly individualistic and competitive society may be to blame. The analysis was conducted using data from the U.K., U.S., and Canada and was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
Perfectionists hold themselves to unreasonably high standards while being overly critical of their shortcomings. Evidence suggests that this personality trait contributes to negative mental health outcomes like anxiety and depression. This seems especially true when the perfectionism is directed by others — what is called socially prescribed perfectionism.
Study authors Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill say these psychological consequences are particularly concerning given that perfectionism appears to be on the rise. In a previous study, the researchers found that perfectionism has increased among American, Canadian, and British young adults in the past two and a half decades. As far as a potential explanation, Curran and Hill wondered whether an increasingly neoliberal society — which encourages competition and individualism — might be pushing parents to place greater pressure on their children’s success. This increased pressure might then be leading young people to adopt a perfectionist mindset as a way to seek validation from their parents.
“I’ve been interested in perfectionism as a sufferer myself but also seeing increasing numbers of students suffer too. We discovered that perfectionism was rising among young people a few years ago and this paper was really just an extension of that work – looking at parental practices as a potential mechanism,” explained Curran, an assistant professor of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics.
The researchers conducted two meta-analyses using data from the U.S., U.K., and Canada. First, they launched a meta-analysis of 21 studies to test whether perfectionism correlates with perceptions of parental pressure. The studies were conducted between 1991 and 2020 and included a total of 7,060 participants between the ages of 9 and 43. All studies included measures of perfectionism, parental expectations, and parental criticism.
The researchers combined the results from these studies and found that perfectionism was positively correlated with perceptions of parental expectations and parental criticism. These effect sizes were the largest for socially prescribed perfectionism, as opposed to self-oriented or other-oriented perfectionism. Effect sizes were the largest in more recent studies — suggesting that as societal pressure grows, so does young adults’ sensitivity to parental pressure.
Next, the researchers conducted a cross-temporal meta-analysis to track how perceptions of parental criticism and parental expectations may have changed over time. This analysis included 82 studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 and a total of 23,975 college students who were between the ages of 18 and 23.
Curran and Hill found that perceptions of both parental expectations and parental criticism increased with time, such that more recent generations tended to report greater pressure from parents than did past generations. The researchers say these results fall in line with previous observations that modern-day parents are spending increasing amounts of time doing school work with their children, placing a higher value on hard work, and increasingly monitoring their children. Notably, income inequality (as measured by a country’s Gini index) was positively related to parental expectations, suggesting that the widening gap between rich and poor might be exacerbating the pressure to achieve high standards.
“More recent generations of young people are perceiving higher expectations from their parents and those perceptions are highly correlated with perfectionism – especially socially prescribed perfectionism (which happens to have the largest correlations with mental health problems like depression and anxiety),” Curran told PsyPost. “This is because parental expectations have a high cost when they’re perceived as excessive. 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.”
To explain why perfectionism and parental pressures are increasing, the study authors point to a society characterized by an increase in neoliberal policy making and free-market capitalism. This context paves the way for competitive individualism, such as rigorous testing and continuous ranking in schools, which then pushes parents toward more critical parenting.
“In tandem with rising returns to college education, neoliberalism is exerting enormous pressure on young people to compete with one another as a way of demonstrating their merit,” the authors explain. “We believe that some parents, too, internalize this pressure and respond, in kind, with a hyper-vigilance for their child’s successes (and failures).”
The researchers emphasize that if this explanation is true, it is not parents who are at fault. Instead, system-level trends like the rising cost of living and declining income would be to blame, for driving parents to exert more pressure on their children.
“Parents are not to blame because they’re 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,” Curran said. “Parents are placing excessive expectations on their children because they think, correctly, that society demands it or their children will fall down the social ladder if they do not set them. It’s ultimately not about parents recalibrating their expectations. It’s about society – our economy, education system and supposed meritocracy – recognizing that the pressures we’re putting on young people and their families are unnecessarily overwhelming.”
Importantly, this increased perfectionism may partly explain why psychopathology is growing among adolescents. “Drawing out these trends exposes an uncomfortable fact,” the authors say. “Today, most young people will need to work far harder than their parents, and earn much more, just to have the same standard of living. They appear to be paying the price for this burden with their mental health.”
Among limitations, the findings may not be generalizable to other parts of the world like European and Eastern/Asian areas. Additionally, the second study focused on college students, who are more likely to be white and of a higher SES, so the findings may not generalize to the wider population of young adults.
The study, “Young People’s Perceptions of Their Parents’ Expectations and Criticism Are Increasing Over Time: Implications for Perfectionism”, was authored by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill.