C hildren watch and learn. It would be nice if we could show them perfect models of humanity, but alas, we can’t — being human and all. But at least we can be cognizant of the power of our example and act accordingly.

“I had no idea how couples resolve conflict properly. Growing up, I saw a lot of drama — yelling, door slamming, driving off, and staying away for a few days at a time. How was I supposed to negotiate my own marriage?”

Of course, childhood impressions can be modified in adulthood. No one is completely trapped or limited by his or her parents’ failings. However, the learning, growing, changing process can take a painfully long time and can be accompanied by many losses along the way. Twenty-year-olds, determined not to emulate their parents’ dysfunctional patterns, think they can do better, only to discover in the face of adult pressures that they are subject to a powerful neuro-network, wired into cell and soul by 20 years of exposure.

“My mother suffered from severe depression. She ended her life after the last of us got married. On top of my own depression, I now had trauma to deal with and it was very rough going for me for a number of years. I thought the only way out was for me to end my life, too.

“Fortunately, I had access to excellent treatment, and with that, and the love and support of my husband and family, I’ve had a complete recovery. It scares me, though, to think of how close I came to disaster, and what legacy I would have left my own children.”

Depression is a true illness that, in severe cases, can rob a person of the ability to make healthy choices. However, the way a disorder manifests is heavily influenced by environmental factors even when the condition itself is caused by genetic factors. From her parents, a child downloads programs detailing how to deal with all aspects of life. Although children don’t simply regurgitate what they’ve seen, heard, or otherwise learned, parents can never be sure which of their lessons will get passed on. A child can “inherit” a parent’s dysfunctional way of thinking and acting just as easily as he can inherit recipes for success and satisfaction in life. A child is always learning; it is up to parents to determine the curriculum.

Rising to the Occasion

Parents are doing the best they can to negotiate their own challenges. It’s hard enough to be dealing with a difficult spouse — is it even possible to simultaneously consider the possible lifelong effects that your reaction will have upon your children?

“My husband borrowed money again — despite promising me that he’d never do that without my consent. Of course I was furious! His behavior was a betrayal of my trust and posed a threat to our family’s financial wellbeing.

“In the earlier years of our marriage I would have said as much to him, right in front of the children. I knew that you’re not supposed to fight in front of kids, but I would have been so hurt that I would have felt unable to control myself. But everything changed one day when I overheard two of my kids playing house. My five-year-old was imitating me, attacking her four-year-old ‘husband’ for making a mess, just as she heard me do so many times when reprimanding her father. I realized that even when my husband was wrong, my kids were learning from my behavior. I knew I had to acquire a new tool set before it was too late.

“I started taking courses, reading books, and doing everything I could to learn healthier ways of managing emotions, dealing with stress, and communicating. I believe that my older kids have learned that people can change and improve over time. And I know that my younger kids would be shocked to learn how I once behaved. With my improved tool set, my husband tries harder to work with me instead of against me and my marriage has improved.”

How do we deal with unacceptable behavior? How do we deal with disappointment, hurt, anger, fear, and every other emotional challenge that human beings face? How do we spend time and money, show love, express spirituality — how do we do anything and everything? However we do life, we need to make it worth emulating — because like it or not, our actions are the model for our children’s. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 575)