When Mothers and Fathers Are Seen as Disproportionately Valuing Achievements: Implications for Adjustment Among Upper Middle Class Youth

Abstract

High achievement expectations and academic pressure from parents have been implicated in rising levels of stress and reduced well-being among adolescents. In this study of affluent, middle school youth, we examined how perceptions of parents’ emphases on achievement (relative to prosocial behavior) influenced youth’s psychological adjustment and school performance, and examined perceived parental criticism as a possible moderator of this association. The data were collected from 506 (50 % female) middle school students from a predominately white, upper middle class community. Students reported their perceptions of parents’ values by rank ordering a list of achievement- and prosocial-oriented goals based on what they believed was most valued by their mothers and fathers for them (the child) to achieve. The data also included students’ reports of perceived parental criticism, internalizing symptoms, externalizing symptoms, and self-esteem, as well as school-based data on grade point average and teacher-reported classroom behavior. Person-based analyses revealed six distinct latent classes based on perceptions of both mother and father emphases on achievement. Class comparisons showed a consistent pattern of healthier child functioning, including higher school performance, higher self-esteem, and lower psychological symptoms, in association with low to neutral parental achievement emphasis, whereas poorer child functioning was associated with high parental achievement emphasis. In variable-based analyses, interaction effects showed elevated maladjustment when high maternal achievement emphasis coexisted with high (but not low) perceived parental criticism. Results of the study suggest that to foster early adolescents’ well-being in affluent school settings, parents focus on prioritizing intrinsic, prosocial values that promote affiliation and community, at least as much as, or more than, they prioritize academic performance and external achievement; and strive to limit the amount of criticism and pressure they place on their children.

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Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Masters and Doctoral students in Luthar’s prior lab at Teachers College, Columbia University, and funding by the National Institutes of Health (R01DA014385; R13MH082592). Sincere thanks also to all the participants in this study.

Author’s Contributions

As a postdoctoral scholar in Dr. Luthar's lab at ASU, LC performed the statistical analysis, participated in the interpretation of the data, and drafted the manuscript. ASC participated in the interpretation of the data, and helped to draft the manuscript. JK participated in the development of the research question, statistical analysis, and interpretation of the data. SSL conceived of the study and participated in its design and coordination and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Funding

This research was supported with funding by the National Institutes of Health (R01DA014385; R13MH082592).

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Correspondence to Lucia Ciciolla.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Ciciolla, L., Curlee, A.S., Karageorge, J. et al. When Mothers and Fathers Are Seen as Disproportionately Valuing Achievements: Implications for Adjustment Among Upper Middle Class Youth. J Youth Adolescence 46, 1057–1075 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0596-x

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Keywords

  • Achievement
  • Parental values
  • Child adjustment
  • Parental criticism