How Do Parents Model Exactly What They Don’t Want?

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How Do Parents Model Exactly What They Don’t Want?

It’s not simply ironic. It’s terribly sad. And at times it’s nothing short of tragic. When parents haven’t resolved their deeper psychological issues, or broken their bad habits, they’re likely to pass them on to their children. So what they’re still struggling with can become their offspring’s ordeal as well.

If you’re a parent, perhaps the examples I’ll offer below will give you some fresh insights into what till now may have represented your blind spots. For if you’re able to accurately identify—and find a way to heal or correct—your all-too-personal problems, you’ll be far less susceptible to burden your kids with them.

This post is about unintentional, counter-productive modeling. And such modeling can relate either to (1) transmitting your unremedied problems onto your children, or (2) influencing them negatively through lifestyle practices they can hardly help but pick up on (and uncritically follow).

What research has repeatedly demonstrated is that visually “dramatizing” a negative action—or reaction—carries much greater influence than merely verbalizing a positive one. It’s no coincidence that one of our most well-known idioms is “Monkey see, monkey do.” Wikipedia is spot on when it speaks of this expression as an “act of mimicry usually with limited knowledge and/or concern for the consequences.” So, just as children adaptively learn language through imitation, if they regularly hear their parents cursing at one another in angry, conflictual situations, those raging parents may unwittingly be prompting their kids, maladaptively, to do likewise.

Moreover, and complementary to this primate-based adage, consider the familiar expression: “Do as I say, not as I do.” That all-too-common parental directive assumes that a child will be, or at least should be, more influenced by what the parent is lecturing about than by their manifest behavior, which displays just the opposite. But unfortunately this dictum runs contrary to how the human psyche usually operates. Personality theorists have frequently noted that covert, non-languaged messages are more memorable, and impactful, than forthright ones. And this is especially true if the barely disguised message is constantly reiterated.

Understandably, all parents make such mistakes, particularly when they’re provoked and their emotions overwhelm their rational faculties. Perfection here (and elsewhere) is a practically unattainable ideal, and you needn’t worry that unthinkingly modeling something adverse will inevitably result in lasting harm to your child. Besides, much negative modeling is fixable. So, for instance, if after a heated argument with your spouse, the one who overreacted apologizes for losing their temper, then kids will learn that though mistakes are inevitable, taking responsibility for them and apologizing can effectively get them resolved.

If, in fact, you have a child who stubbornly refuses to say they’re sorry for a wrongdoing, is it possible that not apologizing has accidentally been modeled for them? That maybe you yourself have a hard time letting go of your (possibly wrongheaded) viewpoint and admitting defeat, and they’ve simply “inherited” this defensiveness from you?

Plus, if you and your partner don’t know how to resolve conflicts (and can only recycle them), your kids are likely to learn that conflicts just aren’t resolvable—that they can be periodically vented, but without ever moving beyond them. And because such patterns tend to be intergenerational, you might ask yourself how often your parents were able to reach workable solutions when they fought with each other.

– Leon F Seltzer

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About the Author:

Generation Next is a social enterprise providing education and information to protect and enhance the mental health of young people.

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