- Personalities are complicated – we have over 600 words to describe them
- A blend of nature and nurture determines what types of traits, tendencies and values we end up with in adulthood
- Our parents can have a huge impact on how our personalities develop, through their own personalities as well as their parenting styles
It can be striking how different some children are from their parents. While some children share incredibly similar opinions, values and traits to the people who raised them, others seem like the polar opposite. Why is it that some of us are like chalk and cheese to our mums and dads, while others are like peas in a pod?
Your personality, which is generally stable by the age of 30, comes from a complex mixture of nature and nurture – our DNA and our lived experiences. One blog by MIT found 368 words that we use to describe personalities, from ‘agreeable’ and ‘calm’ to ‘cantankerous’ and ‘meddlesome.’ It’s long been debated whether we inherit our personalities from our parents, and how much different parenting styles can alter who we become as adults.
While friends, siblings and partners also have a powerful impact on what kind of person you are, looking to your parents can reveal some astonishing information about how your own personality came to be.
Born this way
Signs of your personality-to-be often shine through when you’re only a baby – and many elements of personality are rooted in the genes you inherit from your parents.
Genetics can influence how optimistic, anxious or depressive you tend to be, which in turn can influence your overall sense of wellbeing throughout life.
Studies show that identical twins raised in different households often end up with quite similar personalities, suggesting that our DNA has a big impact on the kind of traits we develop.
However, while genes may predispose you to certain traits, they can’t control how your personality takes hold. It’s the interaction between genetics and the environment that forms each aspect of your character as an adult.
Learning to be kind – to yourself and to others
When it comes to nurture, there’s plenty of evidence to show that children copy how kind their parents are – to themselves as well as the rest of the world. In 2017, a group of researchers across Europe studied 418 families to find out which qualities parents and children most commonly shared. They found that the single trait that children are most likely to copy from their parents is, in fact, kindness.
Subjects were asked to put a list of personal qualities in order of importance. The parents who prioritised terms like ‘helping’ and ‘caring’ were far more likely to have children who mirrored them in their selection.
“This research really shows that where parents nurture positive, supportive and altruistic values, their children will also take these characteristics to heart,” noted Professor Anat Bardi of Royal Holloway, University of London, who worked on the study.
Interestingly, the parents who chose power, success and achievement as the most important qualities didn’t see their children picking similar options.
In short, pro-social caring parents have children who are more alike in personality to them, whereas the parents who focused on personal success found that their children strayed further from their values. Having kind parents may make you kinder – but having more self-centred parents won’t necessarily make you any more self-centred.
“Where being ‘the best’ is among the dominant interests of the parents, children tend not to express such a connection to their parents’ values,” Professor Bardi elaborated.
“This research brings a positive message to the world: pro-social parents breed a pro-social next generation, but parents who endorse selfishness do not breed a selfish next generation,” she concluded.
Body image and self-confidence
Parents who are harsh on themselves – especially in criticising their own bodies and appearances – are likelier to see their children follow suit. According to psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson, children learn to scrutinise their own weight and features as they listen to their parents doing the same to themselves. Parents’ comments can instil a lifelong sense of what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ body.
Scott-Hudson noted that many parents can transfer the personality trait of poor body image to their children “unknowingly” by “putting down your own body in front of them.”
“Even if you never speak negatively about your child’s body, children are experts at picking up on implicit biases surrounding weight, size, or appearance,” she wrote. “Eventually, this kind of self-criticism may erode a child’s confidence in their own body.”
“It may even make them believe that love, especially your love for them, is tied to how they look,” she warned. In the case of eating disorders, there may also be genetic components at play. Anorexia has been linked to personality traits like perfectionism and low self-esteem.
Scientists have found that the chances of a person developing anorexia nervosa are 11 times higher when they have a family member with the condition.
In 2003, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh identified two genes that ran in families with anorexia which had different sequences to the genes of healthy people. These genes are associated with mood and appetite. Discoveries like this are incredibly valuable in learning how we can treat this serious disorder.
Unsurprisingly, our parents also shape our personalities through their behaviour towards us directly, and so different parenting styles help to determine what kind of people we become.
Parents who coddle their children, for example by micro-managing their lives and being overly protective, increase the chances of their children developing anxiety later in life.
What’s more, when children are raised by parents who encourage them to develop a wide vocabulary for communicating their feelings, they are likelier to form more stable romantic relationships in adulthood.
But if you were raised without strong parental communication, it doesn’t mean you can’t teach yourself.
Psychologist Rebecca Bergen recommends using your parents’ communication styles to learn how you can improve your own. “Journal and increase your self-awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in your relationship,” she suggests. “Compare what you are noticing with the ways your parents interacted with you and interacted with each other.”