In a five-year study on primary school children in Singapore, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that children with intrusive parents had a higher tendency to be overly critical of themselves and this tendency increased over the years. Children in the study who demonstrated high or increased level of self-criticalness also reported to have elevated depression or anxiety symptoms.
“When parents become intrusive in their children’s lives, it may signal to the children that what they do is never good enough. 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.
The study looked at two aspects of maladaptive perfectionism: self-criticalness, and socially prescribed perfectionism, and examined how they develop in primary school children.
In the study, children who were seven years old were recruited from 10 primary schools in Singapore, and for each family, the parent more familiar with the child was involved in the study. The research was conducted from 2010 to 2014.
Parental intrusiveness was assessed in the first year of the study using a game played by the child, who was then seven years old, with the parent accompanying the child. In the game, the child had to solve puzzles within a time limit, and the parent was told that he or she could help the child whenever necessary. 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.
The NUS research team observed the participants’ behaviours, and coded intrusive behaviours exhibited by the parents in the context of the game. Subsequent assessments on the children were carried out at ages eight, nine and 11. Children’s maladaptive perfectionism and symptom levels were obtained from the child and parent reports.
Analysis of the data collected from 263 children showed that about 60 per cent of them were classified as high and/or increasing in self-criticalness, while 78 per cent of the children was classified as high in socially prescribed perfectionism. Both aspects of maladaptive perfectionism tend to co-occur, with 59 per cent of the children having both self-criticalness and socially prescribed perfectionism.
“Our findings indicate that in a society that emphasises academic excellence, which is the situation inSingapore, 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.
Asst Prof Hong advised parents to be mindful of not pushing their children over the edge. “Children should be given a conducive environment to learn, and part of learning always involves making mistakes and learning from them. When parents become intrusive, they may take away this conducive learning environment,” he said.
The findings of study were published online in the Journal of Personality in March 2016. – PRNewswire.