Parents have a great impact in their children’s lives in every way. Starting from infancy, parents influence the foods their children eat, the neighborhoods in which they grow up, the schools they attend, even their sexual identity. Adolescents with good parental relationships look to their parents for guidance in identity development. Even the marital success of parents influences children's identity. Parents have the ability and obligation to positively influence their children’s identity development.
Happy Marriage, Happy Children
A large impact on a child’s identity and behavior is the marital harmony of their parents. In the American Psychological Association article, “How Do Parents Matter, Let Us Count the Ways,” the impact of marital contentment on children is addressed. The article sites a Berkeley study that followed students about to start school. The surveyors followed the students for four years. The children whose parents received marital counseling were found to reduce aggression issues and behavior issues in general. Their parents’ marital problems were eliciting aggression and anger issues in the children, and without proper help, these children could have been impacted negatively for life.
Developing Identity Through Mimicking Behavior
Renowned Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson outlined an eight-stage theory of identity and psychosocial development. Erikson’s third stage is one in which children model their parents’ actions. This stage occurs between the ages of 3 and 5, according to Erikson. Parents need to pay close attention to behaviors modeled to children. For instance, a parent that ignores their child and spends a great deal of time on the phone may see them using a play phone incessantly. Children often play with dolls at this stage, and mimic parental nurturing and care. Erikson says children will not only mimic what they experience, but will also internalize these behaviors. The basic family unit is the greatest influence on a child’s identity at this stage in Erikson’s developmental theory.
The adolescent years are notorious for being filled with rebellion and pushing boundaries. In a study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, teenagers are reported as adopting the values of their parents within their own identity when there is a close parent/child relationship. The authors, Ariel Knafo and Shalom Schwartz, say adolescents will rebel against their parents values while they search out their own identity. The children who are close to and respect their parents will likely return to the values their parents have instilled in them and adopt them into their identity. It is the bond and mutual respect the adolescents find with their parents that influence this aspect of their identity, according to Knafo and Schwartz.
Our children's lives are full of sexual content, from magazines, television and music videos. In the article, "Parents and Their Children's Learning about Sexuality," Dr. Michael Carrera discusses the influence parents have on their children's sexual identity. Carrera advises parents to talk to their children about more than the birds and the bees. He says parents need to speak with their children about things like the messages particular clothes send out, what perceptions are regarding sexual content on television and sexual roles in relationships. Carrera says through this open dialogue children will develop a healthy sexual identity with their parents' guidance.