Ep 184: The Overlooked Influences on Teens

Fiona Murden, author of Mirror Thinking, explains the overlooked influences on teenager’s behavior and character development. We’ll discuss which adult role models matter, which are largely ignored, and peer and celebrity influence.

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Full show notes

We know teens need role models…but what does that mean exactly? Are we as parents supposed to provide a perfect example? Are these role models supposed to be teachers or coaches? What about celebrities? It’s not easy to ensure teens have the right heroes to look up to–and social media doesn’t help. In our digital world, it’s tricky to tell if teens are following positive role models online or just obsessing over seemingly perfect Instagram influencers.

As hard as they are to find, good role models can be critical for growing teens. They provide young people with a metaphorical mirror, encouraging certain behaviors and discouraging others. With the help of role models, teens can find career success, improve their physical and mental health, and gain a deeper understanding of their place within the world. But without these examples to follow, our teens might just find themselves lost!

This week, we’re talking all about role models, and how teens can find them in today’s world. Joining us is Fiona Murden, author of Mirror Thinking: How Role Models Make Us Human. Fiona’s been a psychologist for over twenty years! She also works as a public speaker and consultant across business, health care, sports, and politics. Fiona has spent much of her life working with leaders within organizations, leading her to wonder…how do leaders and role models affect those in their sphere of influence?

In our interview, Fiona reveals how much of an influence parents really have over teens. She’s also explaining how parents can destress in order to become better role models, and why social media is damaging teens’ self-awareness.

Parental Mirroring and Mental Models

Parents aren't perfect…but that doesn’t mean they aren’t role models. In fact, parents are a lot more influential in teens' lives than we tend to think! When asked to name their role models, teens are more likely to list their parents then their friends, teachers or coaches, says Fiona. And the research shows that it’s true! Even though your kids might not listen to your opinions on what movies to like or what clothes to wear, teens have been shown to look to parents for cues about career, social nuances and values.

A lot of parental influence stems from the way parents behave…not what they say! Kids often unconsciously observe things that parents do, and then, without conscious thought, mark those behaviors as socially acceptable, explains Fiona. For example, if a parent tends to solve conflict by raising their voice, a teen’s unconscious mind will pick it up and replicate it. Fiona refers to this unconscious assumption as a “mental model.” Even if parents warn kids to “do as they say and not as they do”, parental behavior can be incredibly significant to teens as they grow up!

But what if teens are conscious of their parents’ behavior, and actively choose not to practice the same habits? Fiona explains that this is called “counter-mirroring.” Although it can be a helpful way for teens to avoid replicating unsavory parental behavior, it can also backfire, says Fiona. Sometimes, teens are so afraid of being like their parents, that they stray too far in the other direction. And oftentimes, teens tend to practice the same behavior as parents anyway–and then feel guilty about it later!

In the episode, Fiona and I discuss the idea of mirroring further, and how we can use it to set the best possible example for our teens. But sometimes, parents are stressed, frustrated, or distracted, leading them to be less than stellar role models. How can we as parents de-stress to become better influences on teens?

How Self Care Sets an Example

For parents trying to balance working, cooking dinner, paying bills and raising kids, stress is pretty inevitable! Parenting is one of life’s most challenging endeavors–of course parents are going to find themselves at the end of their rope. And like anyone else, when parents get stressed, they don’t always practice model behavior….but kids are still watching and taking cues about how to behave! If you want to set a positive example for your teens, it starts by taking care of yourself, says Fiona.

When we’re stressed out, we tend to be more directive, telling kids what to do and how to do it, Fiona explains. Instead, we should strive for non-directive parenting: listening, reflecting, and asking kids what they think is best. Fiona explains that non-directive parents often have more influence. Plus, non-directive parenting requires modeling the ability to patiently listen–something teens are certain to pick up on and unconsciously replicate. But non-directive parenting is only possible if we’re able to de-stress.

So if we want to be the best role models possible, we’ve got to relax! Fiona suggests making a plan ahead of time for when you inevitably find yourself stressed out. At the beginning of the pandemic, Fiona worked with ICU doctors to do this same thing. She prompted them to make a plan for who to confide in and how to de-stress when things become overwhelming. And although many of them found it silly at first, they reported back later that it was incredibly helpful! If there are a few small ways you can reduce stress in your daily life, it can do wonders for both you and your family.

Even if teens are able to look to parents as role models, they’ll also eventually turn to sources outside of the home for direction. Nowadays, more and more kids are logging onto social media in search of examples for how to act and behave. But is this a good thing? Fiona and I are discussing this in our interview!

Are Influencers a Good Influence?

When we were growing up, we may have turned to a famous author or popular activist as a role model. But we only had a few to choose from–kids these days are bombarded with hundreds of different people online who are vying for their attention. Instead of one cohesive role model, teens might have dozens of people with conflicting viewpoints that they’re attempting to look up to. This can be pretty disorienting and confusing, leaving teens with a sense that their values and ambitions are scattered.

Fiona suggests sitting your teen down for a conversation about who these influencers really are. Where are they from? How did they gain a following? What makes your teen admire them? Questions like these encourage teens to think critically about the people on their screens. Fiona reminds us that influencers often portray their own lives as perfect, and dissecting their profiles to gain deeper understanding can help prevent teens from being tricked by the illusion of perfection online.

For teens to really develop their own values, they need time to reflect, says Fiona. Unfortunately, social media is making it harder and harder for kids to reflect these days. Teens are on their phones for nearly seven hours a day, using any moment of downtime to pick up their phones and start scrolling. This means that teens don’t always make time to stop and ask the big questions. In the episode, Fiona and I talk about how teens can take more time to reflect, and figure out who they truly are!

In the Episode….

It was so enlightening to speak to Fiona today about how we can help teens find positive role models. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • How testosterone changes teen boys’ behavior
  • Why role models are essential for women in STEM
  • How siblings and peers can act as role models
  • Why teachers aren’t as influential as we think
If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more of Fiona’s work at fionamurden.com or on Instagram and Twitter @fionamurden. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Fiona Murden CPsychol
Fiona Murden CPsychol
Psychologist - growth, mentoring, role-modelling, tech for good. Award winning author:https://t.co/HHFTqGf0iZ https://t.co/KlJkYuef4I & podcaster:@Apple https://t.co/t4mLSnNZeL
Ep 184: The Overlooked Influences on Teens
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