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

If you see behaviors in your child that bother you, first look within.

Franz Marc/Wikipedia
Source: Franz Marc/Wikipedia

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.

Let me provide two sets of examples, starting with a few illustrating the monkey maxim:

  • If you’re an anxious parent prone to worrying and generating worse case scenarios, you’re giving your child the message that the world is a scary place, and that one must be eternally vigilant in guarding against bad things overtaking them. Can you see how easily such emotional messaging might condition a child to also become a pessimistic worrier (added to whatever genetic disposition they might already have to take your lead)?

One academic study on this subject (M. Burstein & G. S. Ginsburg, 2010) came to this conclusion: “[Our] results highlight the importance of parental modeling and the potential role of both mothers and fathers in prevention and treatment for child anxiety.”

  • If you have a depressive personality—largely because, say, you were neglected or abused as a child and repeatedly made to feel you were a burden and unworthy of love—how effectively do you think you’d be able to help your own child feel genuinely secure and develop a healthy self-image? Without undergoing some therapeutic process yourself, it’s compellingly difficult to “pass on” what you’ve always lacked.

One article on how parents are liable to adversely influence their child’s psychological growth describes it this way: “The fact that depressed mothers are likely to be indifferent towards their children, put them in less social situations, and generally provide less stimulation, puts the children at a disadvantage for achieving normal emotional development.” (B. Moges & K. Weber, 2014)

  • If you’ve had a chronic problem with anger, and your family has regularly witnessed your losing your temper (even over seemingly petty matters), there’s an excellent chance that one or more of your children will develop anger problems themselves. And once experiencing how “losing it” actually empowers them—at least for the moment (after all, it’s a guaranteed adrenaline rush!)—as soon as it becomes part of their core emotional repertoire it can be most challenging to extinguish. (And here, see my PT post: “The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?”.)
  • If you had a parent, likely of the same sex, that to get along with others—especially your other parent—routinely gave in to them, what you were unwittingly taught was that to maintain a harmonious relationship you needed to take more responsibility for others’ wants and needs than your own. This is the essence of codependency. And sadly, adopting such an interpersonal stance generally leads to a life of frustration and (ever-mounting) discontent. Being thoughtful and nurturing toward others is admirable. Self-sacrifice, however, is something completely different.
Source: GrahanC99, Artist/Flickr

And now here are some examples that relate to “Do as I say . . .”:

  • If your child is a sloth in the making, how active as their parent, are you? Might they be your "sedentary apprentice"?! Not surprisingly, researchers in the United Kingdom have found that a young child’s activity level directly links to that of their mother’s (as reported by Linda Poom on NPR KPBS radio, 03/24/2014, citing the research of Esther van Sluijs at the University of Cambridge). Parents frequently tell their kids they should get more exercise, go out and play, substitute physical activity for the non-mobile recreation they’re apt to more “lazily” get indoors. But too frequently the parents themselves aren’t modeling anything like vigorous bodily movement. And typically, this sluggishness is what the child is imitating. For the parent’s lecturing “shoulds” are at odds with their own predominantly inert behavior.
  • Closely aligned with the above, if your child spends huge globs of time on video games, texting, social and other media, and you’re assiduously attempting to limit such use, how about yourself? As reported by the British Psychological Society, far too many parents are virtually addicted to various forms of contemporary technology—with their smart phones and tablets practically glued to them (or their eyeballs). Here, too, what the child is explicitly instructed not to do is precisely what the parents are plainly guilty of themselves.
  • Researchers at Sam Houston State University found that “[if parents] used alcohol, marijuana and other illicit drugs, [they were] significantly more likely to have children who used those same drugs. How much more likely? Five times more likely with alcohol use and twice as likely [with] marijuana or [other] illicit drugs." (as cited by G. Gilles, 07/31/15) In many of these cases, parents didn’t seem to recognize that their behavior represented poor modeling, detrimental to their child’s development.

In my own work as therapist, I can’t begin to count the times I saw someone with an alcohol addiction who had grown up with one or both parents similarly afflicted. Although their caretakers typically held a double standard when it came to drinking intoxicating beverages, still what they consistently modeled was far more impactful on their child’s later behavior than what they verbally forbade them to do. Double standards can wreak of hypocrisy. And many adolescents are left eager to assert their own authority and sense of fairness by doing exactly what may have been forbidden—and which, ironically, so bothered them about their parent(s). Additionally, as Gilles observes:

If our kids see that we turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to “unwind” at the end of the day, cope with stress, avoid problems or calm our anxiety, then we are teaching them that substances are needed to get us through the tough times.

. . . So, what do we need to learn from all of this? Two things—easy enough to state, much harder to follow through on:

First, we need to find some way of healing our own past wounds (a subject discussed in many of my earlier posts for PT). That way we won’t unintentionally inflict these hurts on our children. Second, we need to become acutely aware that what we tell our kids to do—and not to do—will have less influence on them than what we model for them.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Burstein, M. & Ginsburg, G. S. The effect of parental modeling of anxious behaviors and cognitions in school-aged children: An experimental pilot study. Behaviour Research and Therapy (2010), 48 (6), 506-515

Gilles, G. Parents, don’t teach your kids “Do as I say, not as I do”: A sober look at the science of addiction and mental illness. July 31, 2015, in Alcoholism Expert Blogs.

Knight, K. E. et al. (at Sam Houston State University). Intergenerational continuity of substance use. Substance Use & Misuse (2014), 49 (3) 221.

Moges, B. & Weber, K. Parental influence on the emotional development of children. Developmental Psychology at Vanderbilt, May 29, 2014.

Ramsay, J., et al. Parents and social media: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Manchester Metropolitan University, news release, April 28 , 2016.

Sheffield, M. A. et al. (2007). The role of the family context in the development of emotional regulation. Social Development, 16 (2), 361-388.

Siegler, R. et al. (2011). How children develop (3rd ed). New York: Worth Publishers.

Sroufe, L. A. (2001). From infant attachment to promotion of adolescent autonomy: Prospective, longitudinal data on the role of parents in development. In J. G. Borkowski et al. (Eds.), Parenting and the child’s world: Influences on academic, intellectual, and social-emotional development. Psychology Press.

Volling, B. et al. (2002). Parents’ emotional availability and infant emotional competence: Predictors of parent-infant attachment and emerging self-regulation. Journal of Family Psychology, 16, 447-465.

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