Recognizing Unwanted Behaviors: How our Childhood Experience Affects our Adult Life

Learn to change unhealthy patterns

Our formative years play a pivotal role in shaping who we become as adults. The impact of childhood experiences on our behavior, reactions, and interpersonal relationships is profound and often underestimated. Just as the saying goes, “Children learn what they live,” the behaviors we observe during our developmental years tend to manifest in our adult lives, often without our conscious realization.

Over the holidays, I was sitting with my 3-year-old nephew on my lap, reading him a book. After reading the story, he proceeded to get off my lap, grab another book, and sit across from me. He flipped rapidly through the pages, mumbling phrases and words as if he was reading the book, and then turning the book around to show the pages with pictures. As I watched him present each page, I began to think about how frequently he watches a teacher sit in front of the class, read a page, and then share the picture pages with the class. My guess is he has seen this one-to-two times per day, five days per week, for the past eight months.

If we use my nephew as an example, we see he absorbed the teacher’s behavior after watching for only eight months. Now, take the overall experience of a child. Children see their parents when they get upset, feel anger or sadness, and how they communicate with others. After a childhood of learning, they replicate those behaviors. We also learned from watching our parental figures daily. We watched for many hours a day and for seven days a week our entire childhoods. We watched our parents communicate, express anger, cope with stress, and more.

This incident made me contemplate the broader implications of this observation. Children, in their developmental stages, keenly observe and internalize behaviors, attitudes, and coping mechanisms from their immediate environment—particularly from their parents or significant role models. We are like sponges during our early years, absorbing the world around us, shaping our understanding of emotional responses, conflict resolution, and communication based on what we witness daily.

Consider this: the reactions, coping strategies, and communication styles we adopt as adults are often echoes of what we witnessed in our parents. If a father habitually withdrew during conflicts, a child may unconsciously adopt the same behavior in their own relationships. Similarly, if a mother used alcohol as a coping mechanism, the child might unknowingly follow suit when faced with stress or emotional distress.

This phenomenon often leads us to replicate patterns that we subconsciously learned, and it isn’t until we take a step back to reflect that we recognize these behavioral echoes.

Acknowledgment and awareness are the initial steps towards breaking this cycle. Identifying the behaviors or reactions we mimic from our parents provides an opportunity for conscious intervention. If you find yourself mirroring patterns that you witnessed in your childhood, such as shutting down, resorting to substances to cope, or avoiding conflicts, pausing and taking a conscious breath can be the first step towards change.

Recognizing these inherited behavioral patterns doesn’t condemn us to perpetuate them. Instead, it empowers us to consciously choose healthier responses. We have the capability to unlearn these behaviors and adopt more constructive approaches in our relationships and interactions.

Therapy, self-reflection, or seeking guidance from mentors or professionals can aid in this transformative journey. By actively working to reframe these learned behaviors, we can create positive changes in our lives and relationships.

The impact of childhood observations on adult behavior is undeniable. However, understanding this influence equips us with the power to break free from negative cycles and consciously shape our responses for a healthier, more fulfilling life.

We don’t have to be slaves to the behaviors we inherited; awareness and proactive effort allow us to redefine our responses and foster healthier relationships with ourselves and others.

recognize unwanted behaviorsTake a look at the behaviors you took on from your parents.

Do you shut down like your father when you get upset? Do you drink alcohol to calm your nerves, just like mom did? Do you avoid conflict at all costs, the way dad avoided conflict? Do you leave, just like your father left you?

Think about the behaviors that you are mimicking from your own parents. If you notice yourself about to shut down, take a drink for the wrong reason, or walk out during a conflict, stop and take a deep breath. If you can consciously recognize unwanted behaviors, you are more likely to change the pattern to a healthy one. Just because you witnessed a certain type of reaction or method of communication as a child doesn’t mean you have to repeat that behavior yourself.

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I earned my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family psychotherapy in 2004 and I am currently licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist MFT (LMFT#47653) with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

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