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Can We Avoid Becoming Our Parents — Or Is It Inevitable?

You can fight nature and you can fight nurture, but can you fight both at once?

Dancing like your dad: You can dread it, you can deny it, but you can’t dodge it. Even the silkiest-hipped individual will, at some point, turn into something resembling a lobster being tasered whenever he attempts to move rhythmically. To illustrate this phenomenon, here is Prince William, 34-year-old father of two and heir to the British throne, throwing down some un-regal moves at a Swiss nightclub a couple of weeks ago:

Now compare that with this footage of his father, Prince Charles, samba-ing like a self-conscious aristocrat in a tuxedo at Carnival in 1978:

Charles himself has commented on the gangly family resemblance, and it’s something we’re all familiar with: The older we get, the more we notice ourselves acting like our parents. For some, like Prince William, this may be as harmless as realizing you’ve inherited your dad’s embarrassing lack of rhythm; for others, however, it can be nastier, relationship-damaging behaviors. But is that how it has to be? Do you have to react to stress, a joke or your children in the exact same way you used to hate your own mom or dad for? Or is it possible to be your own person without a hint of that parental DNA or psyche? Here’s what we found…

Why It’s Happening in the First Place

There are a number of competing theories as to why we eventually succumb to demonic possession by mom and dad. “Almost all children sound and act like their parents at some time and in some way,” says Diane Barth, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst based in New York City. “Both biological and social interactions can lead you to pick up some of your parents’ characteristic ways of interacting with the world.”

The parent-bot programming runs extraordinarily deep in our psyches, partly because so much of it comes from behavior we learned at an early age. “Family patterns are often in the background of many psychological difficulties [later in life],” says Barth. “The psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg wrote about what she called ‘ghosts in the nursery,’ in which mothers treated their children the way they had been treated as children. We bring these patterns into many of our relationships.”

Barth also points to another, more recent explanation offered by scientists who study the physical makeup of the brain. “According to contemporary neuroscience,” she explains, “we’re programmed to develop through interactions with others.”

Which is to say that although we inherit a lot of our brains’ physical properties genetically, as our brains grow in childhood and adolescence, they’re further developed by the intricate way neurons forge connections with each other. Over time, these connections — which dictate the way we behave — settle into well-worn “pathways.” UCLA psychiatry professor Daniel Siegel illustrates this in his book The Developing Mind with an image of hikers instinctively picking the same route across a grassy field day after day: What starts out as a strip of slightly flattened vegetation eventually becomes a trail.

“Our neurons work the same way,” Barth explains. “That is, they tend to flow in an established pattern. This is why early parental behavior has such an impact on our psyches — parents and siblings are the people that most infants and toddlers interact with.”

To put it in really simple terms: Monkey see, monkey do, monkey keep doing.

Why We Hate the Thought of Acting Like Our Parents So Much

According to a survey of 2,000 men conducted by a British TV channel in 2014, the average age man said he first felt as though he was “turning into his father” at 38. Respondents cited falling asleep in their chairs and hoarding batteries and cables among the giveaway signs they were morphing into their old man.

But why do even men who have a good relationship with their fathers find this such an acutely offensive idea? In cases where there’s nothing too objectionable about the parents per se, it’s just residual teenage rebellion. “We fight it when we’re younger because we’re in a stage of life where we’re trying to separate from our parents and become our own independent selves,” says Barth.

Finding your inner parent doesn’t always have to be an unwelcome experience, according to Barth, since it may lead to you having a better understanding of them as people. “Sometimes at this stage we understand our parents’ behavior differently,” she says. “We might even think that [their behavior] makes perfectly good sense.”

How We Can Stop It from Happening

The good news for those determined to forge a different path to their parents is that, according to Barth, it’s possible — but it’s hard work. “It’s important to remember that we are a different combination of traits from our parents, which make us unique individuals. As a result, we can shift our patterns so that we don’t repeat their behaviors.”

The trick to breaking the mold, she says, is first training yourself to be aware of those moments of unwanted emulation, then nudging them away from the script. You can do this by changing the wording of your parents’ favorite mantras a little, or by adding your own personal flourish to any other habits you’ve picked up from them. Why not, for example, exaggerate that coffee slurp by following it up with a satisfied “Ahhh”? It might not sound like much, but it works, Barth says, because “tiny alterations can make a big difference in behavior.”

A second tactic is to consciously try to pick up other, more positive habits from the humans in your life with whom you don’t share 50 percent of your DNA. “Interactions with important people — including a spouse, teacher, mentor or therapist — can help us change by offering new interactions that can build new patterns,” says Barth. So if you don’t like the way your dad handled criticism — and are worried you react the same way — watch someone who handles it well and make careful mental note of what they do. By consciously emulating that behavior for long enough, you will eventually make it habit.

Still, what about the neuroscience? Doesn’t our brains’ preference for well-worn neural connections mean we’ll always slip back into those earlier familiar patterns? “We can change those paths,” explains Barth. “But in certain situations, like when a child is acting up or we’re overly tired, the neurons quickly realign on old paths.”

That explains why so many people first notice echoes of their parents when they’re barking at offspring of their own, suggests Barth. This is when you have to try your hardest to forge your own path to have any hope of escaping the parent trap.

All in all, the parental phantoms etched into us in childhood are hard to drive out completely: Through a mix of nature and nurture, each of us is designed to recreate their parents in some way. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, as my father always says.