We always hear parents wondering whether they're doing enough for their kids. But the question that should probably be asked these days is are we doing too much?
In our desire to protect our children from, well, just about everything, we may be hurting them in the process, and this recent Singaporean study once again shows how we could be unintentionally setting them up for anxiety and failure.
In a five-year study that examined how the "bad form of perfectionism" (or maladaptive perfectionism) develops in primary school children in Singapore, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that children with parents who hover or are over-controlling had a higher tendency to be overly critical of themselves, a tendency that 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 behavior 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 "bad perfectionism" in children: self-criticalness, which is 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.
In the study, conducted from 2010 to 2014, children who were 7 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.
Parental intrusiveness was assessed in the first year of the study using a game played by the child, who was then 7 years old, with his parent. 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 the task: observe whether the parent interfered with the child's problem-solving attempts, regardless of the child's actual needs. Subsequent assessments on the children were carried out at ages 8, 9 and 11.
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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 said 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 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 and seek help when needed, further exacerbating their risk for emotional problems," explained Hong.
Hong added that parents need to keep in mind that part of the learning always involves making mistakes--it's how kids learn to be independent. To do so means letting go of how we hover and control our kids especially when it comes to their academic performance.
Hong offers a small but practical for parents when they ask about grades. "Instead of asking, 'Did you get full marks [perfect score] 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.”
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.