Intrusive parents raise 'bad' perfectionists

21 June 2016 | Research
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Controlling parents can lead their children to be overly critical of themselves

The quest for excellence is praiseworthy, but not necessarily so when this turns into an unrealistic pursuit for perfection. Maladaptive or “bad” form of perfectionism develops when one becomes very critical of one’s imperfections and mistakes. NUS scientists found that pushy parents led their children to be overly critical of themselves, and this tendency could worsen over the years.

In a five-year study on primary students in Singapore, researchers from NUS Psychology discovered that children showing high or increased level of self-criticalness also suffered from greater depression or anxiety symptoms. The project looked at how maladaptive perfectionism developed in young schoolers in Singapore over time. 

This NUS study is unique as it linked parental intrusiveness to self-criticalness among primary school children, unlike other research on maladaptive perfectionism which focused predominantly on adolescents and college students.  

The psychologists recruited seven-year-old children from 10 primary schools in Singapore. Together with their parents, children were assessed on a variety of measures, including child temperament characteristics and parent-child interaction. The children’s maladaptive perfectionism levels were assessed at ages 8, 9 and 11. Two aspects of maladaptive perfectionism were examined: self-criticalness, defined as the tendency to be overly concerned over one’s mistakes and imperfections; and socially prescribed perfectionism, which is one’s perception of others having unrealistic high expectations of oneself.  

“When parents become intrusive in their children’s lives, it may signal to the children that what they do is never good enough. As a result, the child may become afraid of making the slightest mistake and will blame himself or herself for not being ‘perfect’. Over time, such behaviour, known as maladaptive perfectionism, may be detrimental to the child’s well-being as it increases the risk of the child developing symptoms of depression, anxiety and even suicide in very serious cases,” said Assistant Professor Ryan Hong, who headed the study.

In the first year of the study, parental intrusiveness was assessed using a game played by the child. The parent could help the child whenever necessary to solve puzzles within a time limit, and was observed on the level of interference during the child’s problem-solving attempts. For instance, a highly intrusive parental behaviour would be when the parent “hijacked” the game by redoing a move by the child. These parental intrusive behaviours were coded and later analysed.

intrusive parents 2

Asst Prof Hong (left) and co-author Asst Prof Tsai Fen-Fang demonstrating the puzzle game used to assess parental intrusiveness

The results indicated that 60 per cent of the 263 children studied had high and/or increasing self-criticalness, and 78 per cent demonstrated high levels of socially prescribed perfectionism. Both forms co-occurred in 59 per cent of the children.

Asst Prof Hong explained that the findings reflect a society that emphasises academic excellence, typical in Singapore. “Parents may set unrealistically high expectations on their children. As a result, a sizable segment of children may become fearful of making mistakes. Also, because they are supposed to be ‘perfect’, they can become disinclined to admit failures and inadequacies, or seek help when needed, further exacerbating their risk for emotional problems.”

He advised parents to refrain from blaming their youngsters for not performing up to expectations, but instead to praise the children for their efforts, with encouragement to learn from their mistakes.

This study, published in Journal of Personality in March, provides a basis for understanding childhood perfectionism and identifying processes that can help alleviate the deviant form. The project is funded by the Singapore Children’s Society, as well as the Social and Family Research Fund awarded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.  

See press release.