school girlParents who push their children too much to achieve high grades or overact when kids make mistakes may cause children to be too self critical or become a perfectionist.

In a five-year study of primary school children, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that children with intrusive parents were:

  • overly critical of themselves and this tendency increased over the years.
  • had a high or elevated depression
  • exhibited anxiety symptoms.

The study examined how maladaptive perfectionism – commonly known as the ‘bad’ form of perfectionism – develops.

“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 led the study which was conducted by a team of researchers from the Department of Psychology at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

In the five year study, Asst. Prof Hong and his team studied children who were 7-10 years old and one of their parents (the main caretaker). They examined two aspects of maladaptive perfectionism in children: which is the tendency to be  too self-critical, and overly concerned with one’s mistakes and imperfections; and socially prescribed perfectionism, which is described as having unrealistic high expectations of oneself.

Parental intrusiveness

Parental intrusiveness was determined by having parents and children play games. In the game, the child was to solve puzzles within a time limit, and the parent was told that he or she could help the child whenever necessary. An example of a highly intrusive parental behaviour would be when the parent took over the game to retract a move made by the child. The purpose of this task was to observe whether the parent interfered with the child’s problem-solving attempts, regardless of the child’s actual needs.

Assessment were done at ages 7, 8, 9, and 11. Children’s maladaptive perfectionism and symptom levels were obtained from the child and parent reports.

“Our findings indicate that in a society that emphasises academic excellence, …, 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 and seek help when needed, further exacerbating their risk for emotional problems,” explained Asst Prof Hong.

Useful tips for parents

So, what can parents do to encourage rather than to exert undue pressure on their children?

Children should be given a conducive environment to learn, and not over corrected.  For example, instead of asking, “Did you get high marks on your test?”, parents can try asking, “How did you do on your test?”. The former question conveys a message to the child that he or she is expected to get full marks on the test while the second question does not convey such a message,” Asst Prof Hong suggested.

Asst Prof Hong also advised that if a child did not do as well as expected in a test, parents should refrain from blaming the child for not performing up to expectations. Instead, parents should first praise the child for his/her achievements before turning to the mistakes. Parents should take this opportunity and make it into a learning, rather than an evaluative, exercise by helping the child learn from his/her mistakes.

The findings of study were published online in the Journal of Personality in March 2016. This study 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.

More information about the study: https://news.nus.edu.sg/press-releases/10531-intrusive-parents-self-critical

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