Parental pressures a major factor for female students considering suicide

Female college students with mothers expecting perfection and fathers who support the mother are more likely to contemplate suicide than peers from less pressured families, according to a Penn State study.

The study survey of 421 college students -- 227 female, 194 male -- revealed that close to the same percentage of female and male students contemplated thoughts of suicide: 19.4 percent or nearly one in five, says Dr. Michelle Miller-Day, assistant professor of communication arts and sciences in the College of the Liberal Arts.

But the proportion of students who actually attempted suicide was 4.0 percent for females, compared to 1.1 percent for males. Thus, for female students, thoughts of suicide are four times more likely to lead to an actual attempt at self-destruction, she notes.

The findings indicated that college women most vulnerable to suicidal thoughts are those with mothers who not only require stellar performance in school but keep raising the bar of expectation, notes Dr. L. Edward Day, assistant professor of criminal justice and sociology at Penn State's Altoona Campus. Female college students are placed at particular risk when their fathers conform to the mother's wishes and acquiesce in their non-negotiable demands for perfection.

Miller-Day and Day are co-authors of the paper, "Family Communication, Maternal and Paternal Expectations, and College Students' Suicidality," which appeared recently in The Journal of Family Communication.

The researchers asked three sets of statements, to which the students were asked to respond on a scale of 1 to 5. The first set measured self-expectations of perfection, along with expectations of perfection voiced by the mother and father (e.g. "The better I do, the better my mother expects me to do.") Two other sets of statements weighed conformity levels and the degree of emotional closeness in the students' families.

The researchers found a noticeable correlation between excessive levels of maternal expectation on one hand and high levels of paternal conformity on the other -- as well as the daughter's own high levels of expectation --- and the daughter's tendency to think suicidal thoughts. These same variables, however, did not cause male students to give any more thought to suicide as a potential escape.

Miller-Day notes, "Among people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death, accounting for more fatalities than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia and influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. Moreover, an estimated 16 attempted suicides occur for every completed suicide, and approximately 500,000 Americans are treated in emergency rooms every year after trying to kill themselves."

"Suicide is not a behavior found solely among obviously or severely dysfunctional families. In fact, the tragedy of many suicides is the absence of identifiable pathologies beyond the suicide itself," Day adds.

Miller-Day says, "Setting standards for your children is fine. But, problems arise when parents' expectations become the sole motivating force for a child. When a teenager or young adult daughter feels that she must achieve certain standards in order to earn a parent's love, then she may develop a low-level nagging feeling of not being `good enough.'

"There is a big difference between being disappointed for your child and being disappointed in your child," she adds.

Contact: Paul Blaum

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Last Updated March 19, 2009