Parental stress
November 2022 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

In 1966, Diana Baumrind began studying parental expectations and how the expectations that parents have can affect children.  Over 60 years of research has shown that the type of expectations that parents have of you — even in college and university can affect your wellbeing, mental health and academic success.  

Every student at college and university knows that the expectations that parents have can be stressful and sometimes suffocating. College and university were supposed to be a chance for you to do your thing and not their thing. It was finally supposed to be your chance to study something that you wanted to study rather than continuing to do what they wanted and expected of you.  After years of doing what they expect, you were going to do something else.  

Of course, not every student has this experience. Parents can expect more or less of you. Some parents expect very little. They are good with whatever you would like to do. But, some parents can expect a lot of things. They may expect you to get extremely high grades, which may just not be in you or even possible in your first year. They may expect you to study something that you don’t actually want to study, which could make a four-year degree feel like a lifetime.  Even going to university, rather than college or trade school, maybe what they want you to do than what you want to do. 

Type of parenting styles

Although the majority of research on parenting styles has focused on children, research conducted at the University of Ottawa has studied the impact of different types of parenting expectations on students in university and college and the importance of parental praise and involvement. 
This study examined three different types of parental expectations. 

  • Permissive parental academic expectations (e.g., “My parents don’t really care about how I am doing in school”).
  • Authoritative parental academic expectations (e.g., “My parents have high academic expectations of me but are willing to adjust their expectations according to my interests and wishes”).
  • Authoritarian parental academic expectations (e.g., “My parents still expect more from me, even after doing my best”).

Results of this study showed that permissive parental expectations were unrelated to your well-being and your academic success. These results suggest that permissive expectations won’t hinder you, but they won’t help you either.  Not surprisingly, authoritarian expectations were associated with higher levels of stress, more academic difficulties and lower grades. This suggests that parents who are rigid and demanding may be hindering your success and eroding your well-being.  Authoritarian expectations were also related to low levels of praise and low levels of involvement

The benefit of praise, involvement and reasonable expectations

Results of this study also showed that authoritative expectations, such as expecting you to work hard and expecting you to do well, but being reasonable about it, were related to higher grades and higher levels of motivation, as well as lower levels of stress, and fewer failed tests and courses failed.  The study also showed that parents with 
authoritative expectations, also were more involved and more likely to praise students.  

Type of parenting styles. 

You can find out what kind of parenting style your parents have and what level of praise and involvement your parents show by taking the two interactive quizzes below. These questionnaires will also tell you what level of parental stress you have relative to other students in college and university.  

What to do about parents who are stressing you out.

Talking to parents about school is always going to be difficult. Here’s how to get started.

Step 1. Let them know you want to talk about school. There will never be an ideal time to talk to your parents about school. If your parents are causing you stress, then the best time is right now. Parental stress (and authoritarian expectations) are going to hinder your ability to do your best.  Telling your parents that would like to talk (before having the conversation) will give them (and you) time to prepare and ensure that they make time for you.

Tip: If it is easier, then have the conversation with the parent you think will be more understanding or is easier to talk to first.

Step 2: Let them know that you are stressed out about school.
The next step is to let your parents know that you are stressed out and that you are struggling with everyone’s expectations. You might say something like, “I’ve been struggling with courses this semester, they are very difficult, and it is not going well. I feel like I am disappointing you, and it is causing me a lot of stress.”

Step 3: State the issue.
The next step is to make your parents aware of what the issue is — namely, their expectations and stress. You may say something like. “I think I could do a lot better if I didn’t feel so stressed out with thinking that I am disappointing you. I know that you want me to do my best and are worried that I won’t. I want that too.

Tip: They may say that all they want is the best for you and that they don’t have any expectations, which may be true. Even if they say they are not trying to pressure you, if you feel they are, that is the issue.

Step 4: Make a request.
The fourth step is to make a request. This should include what you would like your parents to stop doing, which may include the following:

  • stop asking about my grades,
  • stop asking why I didn’t do better on a test,
  • stop asking what the top grade was,
  • stop asking why I am not studying or telling me that I should be studying
  • stop asking me why I am going out again

Step 5: Meet them halfway.
And the last step is to meet them halfway. In most (but not all) instances, parents have high expectations because they worry or think they know best. You can reduce their worry if you provide them with enough information about your day, how school is going and what they should expect.  Enough information to not worry. Not everything.

You might say things such as:

  • I have got an exam, test or final next (week), I  have already started studying, and I will be prepared.
  • I got lots of work done today so that I could go out with friends tonight, and I will be back at it in the morning.
  • Actually, I am right on track. The average grade in the course is …., and I am on track.
  • The first test did not go as well as expected, but I have a plan in place to do better. I am meeting with the prof, I have a better study plan in place.

Tip: If you say that you are doing all these things, just make sure that you do. All of these things can reduce your parents’ stress, until they find out that you have overstated things. Then their worry goes up. If their stress goes up, then yours will too.

Think of keeping your parents informed a little bit each day, like an investment. If the return on your investment is lower stress, then it is worthwhile. 

Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior, Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.
Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75(1), 43-88.
Pinquart, M. (2015). Associations of parenting styles and dimensions with academic achievement in children and adolescents: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 28(3), 475–493.
Santor, D. A. & Drouin, S. (2022). Impact of Parental Academic Expectations, Praise, Involvement, and Stress on University Student Performance and Well-Being

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