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Healing Families With Honest Role Modeling

bs-13-1461862You can become a healthy role model for your child—even for your adult child.

Obviously, the earlier on you model healthy emotions and behavior for your child, the better. A child who grows up with a parent who is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy will usually have a better chance of developing these qualities him or herself.

But sometimes, being a role model is deeper than merely being a responsible, thoughtful adult. Children see everything, and are often able to read what we really think, feel, and believe. 

In the last few months, my program has been working with *Ryan, a 19 year old young man struggling with severe anxiety and risk-taking behaviors. He lives in a separate apartment attached to his parents’ home, but his mother does his laundry, drives him to his classes (he’s in college), and sends in a cleaning lady to clean his apartment. She and her husband pay all his living expenses (including home entertainment, gym membership, his phone bill–he gets a new iPhone each time a new type comes out)—even his vacations.

This isn’t necessarily the norm in this family’s circles. The mother did disclose that other teenagers often get jobs or at least do volunteer work. They have responsibilities at home, and are given goal oriented projects when younger. In their moderately wealthy New York suburb, parents require young teens to “earn” their allowances and many parents try to instill a work ethic.

But Ryan’s family is different. And Ryan has long senses something isn’t right at home.

Ryan’s mother is furious at him for not being more responsible and especially for his risk-taking behaviors. For example, he drove home one night high on prescription medication he stole from their medicine chest and crashed into a tree in front of their house.

“How could he do this to me and lie about it,” she said to me on the phone. “Don’t let him fool you, you think he’s a sweet kid, but…”

Slowly, torn between her anger at Ryan and her love and concern for him, his mother encouraged her husband to meet with me and their therapist to discuss why Ryan was exhibiting dangerous behaviors.

“But we do model ethical, responsible behavior for Ryan and our daughters, we always have. We are hardworking and successful and we expect our children to be too,” they said when the therapist suggested that Ryan was expressing and acting out what he was seeing at home.

It took months, but  these responsible, ethical, and yes, very caring parents, discovered the behavior they thought they were modeling was actually not being seen. They were sending a subconscious message to their son: Being responsible and hardworking is actually horrible, it takes all the pleasure out of life, and therefore we’re going to postpone it for you as long as possible by giving you everything you want. Our way of life is brutal and unpleasant and an uphill battle so we’ll save you from it as long as possible.

Their marriage relationship also needed help, and their lack of togetherness actually caused Ryan deep pain. Abby and Dave, his parents, were rarely home at the same time but when they were, their main mode of communication was either yelling or the silent treatment. Dave, who had felt depressed for years, felt alive only when he was scoring an investment success, and Abby, who was a well-respected fundraiser didn’t truly enjoy her work or her home life. She lived for and from vacation to vacation, which she took either with her friends or alone.

Ryan sensed his parents’ dissatisfaction with being “responsible, hardworking and successful.” He sensed their lack of connection. They were modeling behavior-hard work, responsibility, marriage and family life-that they actually resented. They were sending out conflicting messages.

This caused anxiety in Ryan, and his main escape was risk-taking behaviors, which soon turned into an addiction to prescription medication and alcohol. He had turned into the repository of the family’s systemic problems.

Now the therapist I assigned to Ryan’s family is working on helping all of them evaluate who they are individually and in relationship to other, how they live their lives, and where they are headed in the short and long-term. We’re getting Ryan help for his substance abuse issues, too, which began as a way to mask and escape almost unbearable psychic pain.

*Identifying details and names have been changed.




Healing Families With Honest Role Modeling

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2016). Healing Families With Honest Role Modeling. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Aug 2016
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