World Mental Health Day 2023: How high parental expectations impact young adults’ mental well-being

07 October,2023 11:57 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Aakanksha Ahire

High expectations and constant criticism from parents can often lead to mental health issues like low self-esteem, depression and anxiety in young adults. Ahead of World Mental Health Day 2023, experts share coping tips with those who share a dysfunctional dynamic with their parents

World Mental Health Day is celebrated on October 10. Image for representational purpose only. Photo Courtesy: istock

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Parents can be a cause of depression and low self-esteem among young adults say mental health experts. "Constant criticism by parents of their child's choices, appearance or achievements can erode their self-esteem and create in them a sense of never being good enough. This can lead to feelings of insecurity and self-doubt," says Dr Shaunak Ajinkya, consultant, psychiatrist, Kokilaben Dhriubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai.

He recalls a case of one of his patients, Jayesh Mehta (name changed to maintain patient's confidentiality) a bright and promising young student pursuing software engineering, who found himself trapped in a relentless cycle of dejection and self-doubt. No matter how hard he tried, his parents - both successful in their respective professions, were never satisfied with his achievements and criticised him constantly. They often compared him to other children who seemed to be doing better and urged him to be more competitive. Jayesh's depression began to manifest in various ways.

He felt a constant sense of anxiety, fearing that he would never live up to his parents' expectations. This took a negative toll on his mental health and emotional well-being. That is when Jayesh decided to seek help from a mental health expert. He was put on a short course of antidepressants and anxiolytics. He also underwent counselling sessions, which included his parents as well. At the end of six months, Jayesh reported a remarkable improvement in his mood and wellbeing saying that his parents were also able to understand him better.

Rahul Chandhok, head consultant, mental health and behavioural science, Artemis Hospital, Gurgaon too, has come across many young adults who feel deeply dejected due to their parents' perpetual dissatisfaction. "This situation can be emotionally challenging for them, leading to issues like low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. These individuals often grapple with the constant need for validation and struggle to develop a healthy sense of self-worth," says Chandhok.

Ahead of World Mental Health Day 2023, we roped in experts who delve deep into the dysfunctional relationship between parents and young adults.

Dissecting the cause of dysfunction
As worrisome as the words ‘dysfunctional child-parent dynamics' sound, this conflict is a reality in most Indian households. The ways to deal with it depend on the extremity of the conflict, but the good news is we are living in times where these aspects are addressed more openly than previous generations did. Sharmilee Agrawal Kapur, co-founder, Atmantan Wellness Centre says, "In my experience, conflict more often than not comes from a place of mistrust and lack of understanding that builds up over time and can again be attributed to our behaviours within the family."

According to Ajinkya, the perception that many parents think their children aren't doing enough may stem from a combination of factors like having genuine concern for the child's bright future, social comparisons in a world filled with social media, where parents may see other children excelling and cultural and societal norms that lay great strong emphasis on academic success or certain career paths.

Adding to this, Chandhok reflects, "Common expectations parents have from their children include academic excellence, involvement in extracurricular activities and a strong focus on career prospects from a young age. These expectations often stem from a desire to provide the best opportunities for their children's future. However, it's essential to understand that each child is unique and undue pressure can lead to stress, anxiety and a sense of inadequacy."

Actions that negatively affect young adults
Most parents today fail to understand the evolving time period. Today, the young generation undergoes stress and pressure in personal and professional life unimagined earlier. Young adults juggle various roles and responsibilities, striving to build careers, maintain social connections and nurture their own well-being. It's not easy for children to explain all of this. Having supportive parents while dealing with the complexities of adulthood is a blessing.

However, when parents add to these complexities, young adults feel trapped. Behaviours like exercising excessive control over their life, constant criticism of their choices, appearance or achievements, constantly comparing them to their siblings or peers, setting unrealistic expectations about their child's performance, disregarding the child's opinions, ideas and desires as unimportant or immature, invading a young adult's privacy and neglecting the young adult's mental health needs or dismissing their struggles can exacerbate emotional distress and lead to long-term mental health issues.

The way out
Although facing criticism from parents can be difficult to deal with, Chandok says, "It's essential for young adults to remember that their self-worth is not determined by external judgments. To cope with this situation, it's crucial to establish healthy boundaries and communicate openly with parents about their feelings."

Here are some ways to deal with parents:
1. Seeking support from a therapist or counsellor. This can provide valuable tools for self-esteem and assertiveness. Remember that personal growth involves making mistakes, and no one is perfect.

2. Embrace self-compassion and focus on self-improvement rather than seeking constant approval. Ultimately, your happiness should come from within, not solely from trying to meet others' expectations.

3. Understand that your parents' constant criticism and pinpointing of your mistakes may have more to do with their issues, fears, or insecurities than with your actual abilities or worth. Try to not take their criticism personally.

4. While it may be challenging, try to communicate with your parents calmly and respectfully. Use "I" statements to express your feelings and needs, and be open to active listening.

5. Practice self-care to maintain your mental and emotional well-being. This includes eating and sleeping well, regular exercise, meditation, having hobbies, and spending time with supportive friends.

6. If your relationship with your parents becomes emotionally or physically abusive, prioritise your safety and well-being. Seek help from local authorities, organisations, or shelters if necessary.

This is not to say that those parents who constantly reprimand their children are always wrong. Ajinkya suggests young adults keep an open mind and actively listen to what their parents try to communicate and understand the reason behind their expectations or dissatisfaction. "Give your full attention to the speaker, ask questions to understand their viewpoint better, and avoid interrupting or dismissing their ideas. When discussing sensitive topics, remain respectful and open to different viewpoints. Avoid becoming defensive or confrontational."

Parents too must make equal efforts for the betterment of their children
Parents need to be mindful especially when dealing with young adults who usually have a lot going on in their mind. They often struggle to navigate their way through adulthood and build a place for themselves in the world.

While open communication, acknowledgement of your child's emotions, respecting their privacy, demonstrating kindness and creating a safe space are uncompromisable essentials, Kapur also suggests the following:

1. Plan activities as a family with your children. This enables human bonding, and togetherness, creating memories (both good and bad) and turning moments into learnings for both the child and yourself.

2. Make time and effort to build trust. Parents need to try hard to make sure the fear of being judged or compared doesn't drown out or deter the child's voice or individuality. Ultimately, we all hope that when in a soup, our child no matter what will reach out to us instead of an outsider (despite knowing she/he will get yelled at).

3. If your child shows signs of disturbed mental health, seek professional help for better guidance.

4. Create a loving environment where your child feels heard and appreciated. This will help them grow better and shape into confident beings.

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