We feel the stress everywhere. Our teens and college kids seem to be bombarded by impossibly high standards of educational, physical and social attainment. They are expected to be academic, athletic and social stars, all while making is seem so easy. Effortless perfection has become the goal.
But, it is an unattainable goal and as we look on we know we never felt pressured like this when we were their age. Are our perceptions rooted in reality or are they merely the impressions of sympathetic parents? Does the data bear out our painful observations that society or self imposed standards on our kids are just too high?
The news is not good.
A new study out this week by two UK psychologists, published in the American Psychological Association, bears out our fears. The study’s authors, Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, looked at more than 40,000 college students, and discovered that most of them showed signs of what they call, “multidimensional perfectionism” which is defined as perfectionism driven by unrealistically high expectations.
The drive toward perfection, and the frustration and failure it brings has risen steadily since 1989. The area of the greatest increase and, thus, concern has been socially prescribed perfection, ie standards set not by the individuals themselves but by changing cultural norms in the society at large.
Why do our kids feel this stress?
Social media is not surprisingly a major culprit. Once upon a time, you could go on vacation, and it just wasn’t possible for others to see how perfect your vacation was. Now, we are all capable of not only splashing our vacation photos across Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat but we can edit our lives until they appear to be flawless.
The study explains that,
Not only more dissatisfied with what they have, young people are also seemingly more dissatisfied with who they are. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have become ubiquitous, occupying 2 out of every 5 min spent online. The popularity of these platforms is, in part, explained by how they allow users to curate a perfect public image. Yet rather than alleviate presentational and interpersonal anxieties, studies indicate that exposure to others’ perfect self-representations within social media can intensify one’s own body image concerns and sense of social alienation.
At every stage of our kids’ development they are rewarded (grades, scores, college admissions, popularity, attention) for striving for perfection with little regard to the psychological cost it might incur. As the study’s authors explain, our kids have come to believe that, “The perfect life and lifestyle—encapsulated by achievement, wealth, and social status—are available to anyone provided you try hard enough.”
But the pressure is not just on our kids, we as adults are both subject to the pressure and perpetrators of it. The authors explain that
For parents, this new culture confers an additional burden. On top of their own duty to succeed, they are also responsible for the successes and failures of their children. Should a young person be unable to navigate an increasingly competitive social milieu, then it is not just their failure, it is also the parents’ failure too.
Thus, the cult of perfection is even more of a burden on parents than it is on their kids.
The pressure we parents feel to ensure our kids academic achievements, make us overly involved, controlling and anxious. We transmit this anxiety to them, perpetuating a vicious cycle of perfectionism and disappointment.
By setting high expectations for our kids we feel we are preparing them for an increasingly competitive world, but, as the study shows, we may be doing more harm than good.
Controlling behaviors include a combination of high expectations and high criticism and encourage children to adopt extremely high standards and strive for perfection, so to avoid criticism and gain the approval of their parents. In short, when reflecting on changes in parental practices and the likely influence on perfectionism, increases in both anxious and controlling parenting are likely to help explain why perfectionism may have increased among young people.
But, at what cost to both parent and child?
Along with this rise in striving for perfection, we have seen a rise in all forms of mental illness in young people. Is this perhaps the result of being faced with almost unattainable goals? While parents often look to the world in which their kids function for causes of their stress and anxiety, perhaps the first place we should be looking is at ourselves and at the culture we have created both in the home and in society.