“The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.” This African proverb beautifully describes how someone who gets hurt remembers the pain while the person who does the hurting typically forgets. This proverb also comes to mind when we bring up parenting. From your early days, parents and parent figures shape your behavior, emotions, and sometimes even thoughts. But do your parents’ actions affect you later on in life? Keep reading to find out if your family might have shaped you into who you are now.
The Anger Tutorial
The walls of our family home can sometimes trap us. Have you experienced your family yelling on top of their lungs, even for the smallest of things? Maybe they don’t yell. Maybe they just speak hurtful, abusive words that cut right into your heart. Maybe the abuse turned physical and made you seek comfort in the corner of your room. If you, unfortunately, witnessed aggression from an early age, how did it shape you later on?
It’s possible that you solemnly swore that you’d never repeat the same mistakes your parents did. It’s also possible that all those things you witnessed sneak into your subconscious and turn into learned aggression.
In 1971 Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura came up with a social learning theory. This theory states that social behavior is learned by observing and imitating the behavior of others. Unfortunately, this includes all of the negative behaviors, as well.
Let’s say, as a child, you observe your parents screaming and aggressively slamming doors or throwing objects at each other whenever they argue. This may become the learned behavior. When you grow up and a colleague, friend, or partner upsets you, you may react in the same way without even thinking. You might get passive aggressive, yell or even break things out of anger. In some cases, you might catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and recognize your parent’s image, or it might go completely unnoticed.
Would you describe your parents as “warm” or “loving”? A 2018 research study published in journal Frontiers in Psychology defines parental warmth as “support, praises, and displays of affection and tranquility”. It’s about your mother’s arms being safe heaven and your father’s voice scaring the monsters away. At first glance, this seems logical. Aren’t all parents supposed to be kind and caring? Even if warmth was a basic parental instinct, some parents, for whatever reason, are emotionally unavailable and cold-hearted. Take, for example, Monica Gellar from “Friends”. Monica’s mother, Judy, was often critical and emotionally distant, which left Monica feeling unsupported and unvalued. As a result, Monica struggled with self-esteem and turned to food for comfort. And like Monica, as you grow older, you may begin to search for sun rays elsewhere. But you may still feel the consequences of that cold winter known as your childhood.
As shown in a 2019 study published in Social Science & Medicine, the warmth that your parents showed you when you were young is linked to social, psychological, and emotional wellbeing in adulthood, even as late as mid-life. You may have trouble coping with stress, fall into depression, or look for comfort in drugs or alcohol. Taking care of yourself becomes difficult, because maybe you’re not even sure what it looks like to be taken care of.
Dealing with cold, unloving parents leads to another wound you may have experienced as a child: rejection. Can you think of a time when you felt like you weren’t accepted by your parents? Maybe you excitedly showed them your drawing and waited for a “Good job!”, but you were instead told not to bother them or to go to your room. Maybe you craved a long hug after a lonely day at school, but were told to go annoy your sibling, back into loneliness.
To a child, this rejection can mean something too scary to even think about. It sends the message that they are simply not good enough. When you become an adult, those messages stay deeply hidden inside your mind, a learned behavior. Licensed mental health counselor Stephani Jahn told PsychCentral that “rejected children often grow up to experience difficult self-relationships, including self-doubt, self-neglect, self-sabotage, and self-hate.” In a way, you learn to reject your own self and believe you’re not as worthy as others are. This is not true, of course, but it’s hard to escape that mindset. Talking to a mental health professional might be a great way for you to accept yourself for who you are!
Of course, not all parents are aggressive, cold, or neglectful. Some of them can be very nurturing and loving towards their children. They shower them with hugs, kisses, encouragement and gifts all day, every day!
But too much of a good thing can easily turn into a bad thing. This type of parents can sometimes forget that at least some rules and structure is needed. And it’s hard for them to set the rules, because they want to be your friends so badly! That’s why they might let you watch TV the entire day, never bother you about your homework, and let you munch on sweets before lunch. It may sound like every child’s dream, but do you think parents like these raise mature and successful adults? Take the kids from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for example. Veruca’s parents indulge her every whim and pamper her to an unhealthy extent. Mike is allowed to spend all day in front of screens. Augustus’s parents indulge his lack of self-control, and Violet’s constantly give in to her chewing gum obsession.
Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development almost perfectly illustrates how they turned out – it says that children raised getting everything they want tend to lack self-discipline, possess poor social skills, may be self-involved and demanding, and may sometimes feel insecure since they lacked boundaries and guidance growing up. Also, a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology shows that these children may struggle academically too. They never really had any expectations put on them, so they don’t really bother succeeding in school or career.
In this parent’s eyes, they may be just trying to make their kid happy or give them everything they never had, but in reality, they’re doing their child a great disservice.
Based on the research, it’s safe to say our childhoods can affect our lives later on. Look, if you have kids or are a parent figure to one, you know how hard parenting can be, but it can be very easy to make good choices for the sake of your child’s future. If you believe your childhood is impacting your life, contact a mental health professional to learn more. Do you recognize yourself in any of these examples? Do you think that your upbringing played a role in who you grew up to be?
Want to know more about how your childhood influences your life? Check out how your childhood influences the way you express love!
Chen, Y., Kubzansky, L. D., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2019). Parental warmth and flourishing in mid-life. Social Science & Medicine, 220, 65–72.
Dalimonte-Merckling D, Williams JM. Parenting styles and their effects. In: Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development. Elsevier; 2020:470-480. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-809324-5.23611-0
Gillette, H. (2022, August 18). 54 possible effects of physical and emotional rejection in childhood. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/effects-childhood-rejection#recap
Introduction to social learning theory. (2021, April 27). CORP-MSW1 (OMSWP). https://www.onlinemswprograms.com/social-work/theories/social-learning-theory/
Masud S, Mufarrih SH, Qureshi NQ, Khan F, Khan S, Khan MN. (2019). Academic performance in adolescent students: the role of parenting styles and socio-demographic factors – a cross sectional study from Peshawar, Pakistan. Front Psychol. 10:2497. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02497
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What is parental warmth? (2018, March 10). WOW Parenting. https://wowparenting.com/blog/what-is-parental-warmth/
Zimmermann, J. J., Eisemann, M. R., & Fleck, M. P. (2008). Is parental rearing an associated factor of quality of life in adulthood? Quality of Life Research: An International Journal of Quality of Life Aspects of Treatment, Care and Rehabilitation, 17(2), 249–255.