By Hannah Schultz
With the holiday season fast approaching, many of us will be making the long, or short, trek back home to spend time with that semester-long neglected group of loved ones—our family. While each of our families have varying degrees of craziness, no doubt as we are getting older, approaching adulthood, marriage and our own parenthood, many of us are beginning to see similarities in ourselves and our parents. All those years of rebellious teenage antics and defiantly yelling, I will never be like you, are drawing to a close, opening up a whole new set of concerns. Are we doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes, or can we escape genetics and parental influence?
Evidence from recent scientific studies have shown that over 50 percent of ourselves—personalities, behavior patterns and social interactions—is determined by genetics. More findings are surfacing that lead researchers to believe that psychological conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism are linked to genes. Our family history can cause predispositions for certain personality traits or health problems, and, of course, our parents determine our physical characteristics.
The environment in which we grow up also influences our personality and way of living. According to Psychology Today, we are programmed to develop through our interactions with others. As children, our interactions are mainly with our parents and siblings, so early parental behavior has major effects on our personalities. Furthermore, as we get older and are confronted by stressful situations that we watched our parents face, our neurons seek familiar paths, so we react by copying our parents’ actions.
In many ways, this parental influence can be beneficial. According to Brenda Harden, a professor at Yale University, positive and consistent caregiving paired with a nurturing and stimulating home environment can compensate for negative situations, such as poverty and other risk factors. Parents can positively shape their children’s habits and personalities through appropriate parenting practices, keeping them safe and cultivating an engaged child. It is often by watching our parents that we learn how to be fully functioning, happy adults.
But if your family has a history of psychological illness or you grew up in an unstable home, does that mean you are condemned to a life of unhappiness?
The answer is no; however, it will require attentiveness to the warnings that your parents’ mistakes left you.
Here, I will make a personal confession: I have always been terrified that I would turn out like my parents. Most of all, I was worried that I could never be in a lasting relationship. Divorce runs in my family; it’s the norm. My grandparents on both sides of my family are divorced. My dad was divorced once before he married my mom, and then they got divorced when I was four.
I grew up with divorce looming in my horizon, casually tossed around the dinner table, integrated into my everyday life. Statistics show that children with divorced parents are up to 60 percent more likely to end their marriages in divorce as well. Knowing that, I convinced myself that I would fail in all of my relationships, that my fate was inescapable. However, what I learned was that this fear was the most detrimental part of the situation. In fearing that I would turn out exactly like my parents, I let doubt creep into my relationships, pushed people away and sabotaged myself.
The key to escaping your parents’ mistakes is simple: pay heed to their example. While you grew up under their wing, studies show that your personality and behaviors are largely constructed through your social interactions, even now. Surround yourself with peer groups who will positively influence your thoughts and actions. If you grew up in a broken home, don’t let that convince you that your life is destined for the same path. Use your parents’ mistakes as a warning against making the same ones, not as an excuse to live in fear. As for genetics, inform yourself about your family history and take steps to prevent any predisposed conditions.
So when you look in the mirror and see a replica of your mom or realize that you have road rage just like your dad, remember that you are not your parents—with a little self-discipline and grace, you can escape both nurture and nature.