During graduate school, my wife and I lived in a basement apartment. We had one, young daughter at the time – she was about 18 months old. One evening when things were pretty crazy at the house, we had forgotten about a meal in the oven and the smoke alarm went off. As soon as it went off, I noticed my daughter waving a rag trying to make the smoke alarm shut off. We had to laugh at her futile attempts to turn the smoke alarm off, but she knew just what to do. Why? Because she had seen her parents do the exact same thing in the past. This is a simple story that illustrates a very important truth: Whether we like it or not as parents, our children learn by our example. In fact, a parent’s example is one of the single greatest predictors of children’s attitudes and behaviors through adolescence. This concept has been communicated in a lot of different ways – even through music. In a country song by Rodney Atkins entitled, “I’ve Been Watching You,” the chorus teaches an interesting truth from the perspective of his son:
He said, “I’ve been watching you, dad ain’t that cool?
I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you.
And eat all my food and grow as tall as you are.
We got cowboy boots and camo pants
Yeah, we’re just alike, hey, ain’t we dad?
I want to do everything you do.
So I’ve been watching you.”
Children see the world and make sense of the world through their parent’s eyes. As parents, this principle brings with it a great responsibility. As I have met with clients for the past seven years, I have seen the influence – whether intentional or not – that previous generations have on the current and future generation. I’ve met with clients with serious anger issues who were abused from the time they were very young. I’ve worked with individuals who can’t understand why they can’t engage in a healthy relationship with their spouse even though their parents never connected emotionally. I feel a deep sense of empathy as I help these clients through their struggles, because they had no control over their parent’s behaviors. To be clear, we cannot blame all of our unhealthy behaviors on past generations because we have to accept accountability for our choices. That being said, we must acknowledge that some behavior is learned and that past generations influence – but do not cause – our behavior. We also must remember that every negative learned behavior can be unlearned. And every healthy unlearned behavior can be learned. Within the transgenerational models of family therapy, a genogram is a common assessment tool that is used. A genogram is a pictorial diagram of a family’s relationship system, in the form of a family tree and usually includes at least three generations. Its primary purpose is to trace recurring behavior patterns within the family. The therapist is looking for patterns of maladaptive behavior which has spanned over generations. For example, a client may come to therapy seeking treatment with an alcohol addiction and upon further questioning, the therapist learns that the client’s dad, grandpa and great-grandpa were all alcoholics. Again, this pattern does not excuse anyone from individual accountability, it simply notes the powerful influence of example across generations. With this as a framework, I want to share one of my favorite principles from genograms: Transitional Characters. These are the individuals in the family who try to change an undesirable behavior and because of their efforts, they change the course of future generations. These are the individuals within a family cycle who had the courage and strength to reach out for help and make very difficult changes. These are they who have internalized the truth that to accomplish a goal you have never before attained, you must do things that you have never before done! When future generations look back at family patterns, they will point to this transitional character as the one who has broken an unhealthy pattern and their influence will be felt by many! Remember that each of has the ability to choose for ourselves which path to pursue – regardless of those that have come before us. And for those that are parents, you can never underestimate the power of your example and the long lasting effects it can have.
- Chad Olson, LMFT