Ep 184: Overlooked Influences on Teens

Episode Summary

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.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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!


Complete Interview Transcript

Fiona: We talk about role modeling on the show, a good amount, but now we’re going to actually get to dive into some of the science and the neuroscience behind role modeling. What’s actually going on in the brain. And also something I’m really fascinated in is social norms and how we influence each other. So I’m pretty excited about this. What got you into these topics and specifically mirror neurons? Your book is called Mirror Thinking. Why is that something that you felt was a topic to write a book about?

Fiona: Well, I’ve worked as a psychologist for 20 plus years and predominantly in organizational settings. And I see how a leader influences so many people, not just their team, but also their team’s team. And it can be up to thousands of people that they’re impacting in terms of their own behavior, setting the tone of a culture through to values, through to even micro sort of points of behavior and norms. And that is clearly happening through some sort of brain mechanism. And I was interested, what is that? What’s behind it? What is it that’s creating these imitations in effect that we’re not most of the time consciously aware of?

Fiona: With neuroscience, we’ve got a huge sort of journey ahead of us. We are right at the beginning and so we can’t make too many sweeping claims, but one of the areas that has been researched is the mirror neuron and what has been termed the mirror system in the brain, which are the social systems that enable us to basically learn through watching and then doing.

Fiona: You have a story in the book about moving when you were the 13 years old, moving to a different part of the country and changing schools and how you then sort of changed yourself to adapt in the new environment or to fit in with kids in the new setting.

Fiona: It’s embarrassing because I always forget I’ve written things about myself in the book and then they come up and I think, oh yes. I wrote that. I did write that. I think I was hypervigilant about social nuances because my parents split up when I was seven. So I think when you’re in a slightly disjointed family, you’re often tuning in to all the social and emotional cues to work out how to behave as a child. And so I think I was hypervigilant already of those cues. I’d been at a school where I’d been quite studious and the thing to do was to be studious. And so I was. I worked hard. I was in the sports team. And I moved to this school where it really wasn’t the thing to do to be studious. And you really didn’t fit in if you worked hard or if you were good at sport. And so I changed the way I behaved.

Fiona: You can look at yourself and you can look at people you know with psychology, with any science. Well, not with any science I think, but particularly with behavior and psychology, you’re looking at, how did I experience that? How are my kids experiencing that? But then you look at it through the lens of science as well and try and put it all together.

Fiona: You also talk a little bit in the book about what happens when we don’t have anybody to model and how there are stories of children who didn’t have influences from other people like this one girl that I thought was really interesting, Oxana, who was born in a small village in Ukraine and ended up sort of being, I guess, raised by dogs.

Fiona: Yeah. It’s a really sad story because what’s been pieced together since is that she was the child of alcoholic parents who had apparently left her outside one night when she was, I think about two years old. She was cold. She was, we imagine, very scared. And she curled up with dogs that roamed the area for warmth. And then for one reason or another, she ended up being brought up by those dogs. So the things that we would expect, she wouldn’t be able to read, she wouldn’t be able to write, she wouldn’t be able to do math, but the things that we don’t necessarily think about so much, the things we take for granted, are all the social skills and the emotional skills is being able to understand what someone else is thinking and predict someone else’s behavior.

Fiona: Being able to read someone else’s emotions, being able to talk, all those things were lacking when she was found. I think she was nine when she was found. And whilst she’s grown up to be an adult who is functioning, she’s not a normally functioning adult because it’s such a pertinent age where we need those inputs and influences and that security and attachment in order to be able to develop effectively

Fiona: As parents, a lot of times, especially with teenagers, we feel like we don’t have that much influence or that they don’t listen to what we say. They seem to just want to do their own thing. But you do point to some research in the book suggesting that parents are one of the strongest influences on teenage behavior and what careers they become interested in and what sort of traits they develop. I thought that was encouraging to see.

Fiona: It’s another thing that I found fascinating when I was exploring research that while we look at teens than we think, well, they’re more influenced by their peers or they’re more influenced by influences.

Fiona: Yeah. People they follow on Instagram.

Fiona: Yeah. But when teenagers are asked, in all sorts of different parts of the world, not just in the States or in the UK, teenagers will put their parents as their primary role models. And what that means in particular through the teenage years is we very much imitate and take on our parents’ values. So whilst they might be influenced by wearing something different or talking a different way if our friends do as a teenager, our core values will be most strongly influenced by our parents and will remain quite steady. And if you think about that, that continues throughout life. We tend to maintain the values that our parents had, unless we have significant life events that cause us to reassess those or change them.

Fiona: Another aspect of that is how exactly that influence takes place. And it appears from the research that it does really matter what you do and what you say is important, but really your behavior is also really critical.

Fiona: Yeah. It’s that saying, do as I say, not as I do. We’ve got a prime example with our prime minister in the UK at the moment. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that, but he’s off doing one thing and expecting everyone else to do the other. And when I’m working with leaders, I’ll say exactly the same thing, but I will refer them often to their teenage kids or nephews or nieces. And I’ll say, if you were to tell your children to put their phone away but you sat on yours all through dinner, do you think they’re not going to say anything? Of course they are. They’re going to say, well, why should I put my phone away because you’ve got your phone out?

Fiona: And that’s conscious, but a lot of these behaviors and nuances are passed on unconsciously. And as a parent, we can’t be perfect. There’s no way we can be perfect because we’re human. And so it is not a case of saying we have to role model perfection, but being conscious of when we’re not role modeling perfection, that’s the important thing and calling it out.

Fiona: So for example, on Friday, I don’t lose my temper with anyone really very often, but I just got pushed that little bit over the edge on Friday with my teenage daughter. And I said no to something that she wanted to do and then she got grumpy and I started banging around and she shouted at me and said stop banging things. And I turned around and said, “You do not speak to me like that.” And we fell out. And I had to cool down from that. But I knew that I to go and apologize and say I’m sorry I shouted at you because it wasn’t the appropriate behavior on my part. What I was saying remained true, but my behavior wasn’t appropriate. It wasn’t correct. It wasn’t what I should have been doing.

Fiona: Now, she probably hasn’t really thought much about it. She was still annoyed with me, but making it explicit creates a different mental map for the child, for the teenager, than if you don’t make it explicit. If you just leave something like that, then that becomes part of their mental map of what’s normal. What’s expected from you. But then also they will without intentionally meaning to, at some point mirror that behavior themselves.

Fiona: And it colors their mental model for how to interact with people and what’s okay in dealing with other people.

Fiona: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s being explicit, and then there’s the other aspect, I call it counter mirroring. When I work with leaders, I do these index psychological profiles. They’re four hours and we go back to teenage years. And what I’ve found interesting is the counter mirroring is often more powerful than the mirroring because it’s so conscious and this conscious aspect just amplifies things. So if you see your parents doing something and you think, oh my goodness, I don’t want to be like that. There’s no way I’m going to be like that.

Fiona: Never want to end up like that.

Fiona: So there’s two outcomes to that. One, you go completely the opposite or two, you end up doing it and hating yourself because you’re, oh, I thought I’d never do this, but I’m doing it. But that choice to deliberately move away from the way a parent behaves or the way a parent does something can be really strong and can really stick. And it comes back to the original point there that it’s about whether it’s conscious or unconscious. When something’s conscious or explicit, it makes it far more powerful.

Fiona: And so there’s both ways that could happen. Either that the parent makes it explicit and says, hey, I just want to talk about what just happened yesterday and has a conversation about it. Or that the teenager starts to make it explicit and realize, hey, I never want to end up that way or that’s not how I want to be in my life or the way that I relate to other people and decides to try to do the opposite.

Fiona: Absolutely.

Fiona: We also have some interesting stuff in the book about siblings, how siblings influence each other. And I found some really interesting data in here about how siblings influence each other into risky behaviors often, smoking and drinking and things. Or even when one sibling gets pregnant, teenage pregnancies, then that can affect the other sibling as more likely to repeat the same pattern when they reach that same age. Or even after a sibling leaves the home, they could still be having this same type of influence on the sibling who is still in the home.

Fiona: Yeah. And it’s interesting, even in adults who have grown up in normal families where women in their thirties will be getting pregnant at a similar age as their sister, which is just really interesting. But I think the core point here is the impact that siblings have on us is often overlooked.

Fiona: Yeah. Right.

Fiona: Siblings do have a massive influence because they’re normalizing that behavior. But they’re also the only people in the world who are experiencing the exact same pressure cooker of family life as we are. The exact same mix of beliefs and values and experiences, which makes it very unique. It’s also interesting how uncles and aunts and cousins, particularly in marginalized teams can have quite a strong influence. And that can be both negative in terms of normalizing violence or substance abuse, but it can also be very positive when children or teenagers see prosocial behavior. So behavior that’s enabling others and helping others, which is really, I think, quite heartwarming when you see it that way.

Fiona: And similarly, there’s things on prosocial behavior among peers. You talk about some research in here showing that 12 to 16 year olds were more prosocial when doing so was approved of by their peers and 12 to 15 year olds were more likely to volunteer or help people in their community if they believed other pupils in their school were doing the same. This use of mere thinking is known as imitated altruism.

Fiona: Yeah. I love that term. I think that’s a great term. And I love this concept of prosocial behavior across society anyway and I think it’s something that we tend to underestimate in humans. And I think if people are given the vehicles to be able to be prosocial, it doesn’t take much for them to do so. And it has a massively positive impact on all sorts of aspects of mental health. I don’t know if you’ve seen the UN happiness report? I think it was the 2018 UN happiness report. They looked at the impacts of prosocial behavior on economies and prosocial behavior has been shown to improve the economic outcomes of countries. So it’s not minor. It’s not just about the individual. It literally has societal benefits from a feel good perspective, a mental health perspective, right through to an economic. So if we can encourage our teenagers and we can enable situations where they can be helpful and prosocial, then we’re helping set up society to be a better place.

Fiona: Talk to me about this study I found a really interesting with male skateboarders and they were supposed to choose one easy trick and one difficult trick. And they did them 10 times being filmed by a male researcher. Then they did them another 10 times in front of an attractive 18 year old female. And they behaved a little bit differently then.

Fiona: So they took far greater risks in front of the attractive teenager. She was unaware that she was being planted as an attractive teenager. And they attested to the fact that she was attractive by sort of comments that were collected by the experimenters. But I just love this experiment because it’s not something that we’re probably surprised at. If you imagine a group of boys doing skateboarding and there’s this attractive girl or attractive girls walk past, then they’ll up the ante and they’ll try to look a little bit more impressive. But because of levels of testosterone and because of in that age group there’s that social brain is incredibly finely tuned to what’s going on around them. And for boys, that will often result in making riskier decisions.

Fiona: That makes a lot of sense. It’s not surprising, but it’s really interesting just how these things can be tested in the lab. And I wonder what is the equivalent of that for girls?

Fiona: Yeah, it’s interesting actually, because I don’t know what the equivalent is for girls. I don’t know. Actually I don’t even want to suppose what it’d be because we don’t know, do we.

Fiona: But they don’t tend to take more risks to impress boys, or there’s not data suggesting that.

Fiona: No. That’s not so much where you’ll see those sorts of behaviors. Boys for example, another interesting experiment was when boys were playing driving games. If they had a peer with them, so someone their age, they will take more risks. They’re more susceptible to risks because it’s this desire to show off and to be socially accepted by being impressive.

Fiona: Yeah. So it’s not just when they’re showing off to members of the opposite sex, but also when they’re just trying to show off to their friends as well.

Fiona: Yeah. And this research shows that there are high levels of testosterone in teenage boys than we would say in an adult male or a female. And another impact of that is that it in effect, it blocks some aspects of the mirror system. So the mirror system isn’t just responsible for imitative behavior. It’s also responsible. If you think back to Oxana Malaya, that example you gave before of being able to read social and emotional cues and being able to read the nuances and respond to those. And what happens is that because of that higher level of testosterone, those sympathetic or empathic capabilities are slightly blocked in teenage boys, which means they’re more single focused and they’re also more likely to miss the nuances of behavior that we would normally see people picking up on. And again, it’s not surprising. If you think about a teenage boy, that makes sense.

Fiona: Totally. Yeah.

Fiona: And then the recommendation from research is you direct those behaviors into safe risks because they will take more risks. So it’s things like rock climbing or martial arts, skiing. Obviously you have to be a relatively affluent family to be doing that, but it’s looking at other ways of directing that behavior that is more positive.

Fiona: Right. So it’s not about, hey, don’t take risks. Don’t do risky things. But about understanding that they’re going to want to take risks and thinking about how you can channel that in a more productive way.

Fiona: Yeah, absolutely.

Fiona: We talked about how parents are often at the top of the list of influential role models for teenagers. But then what’s interesting is that you say teachers seem to be not as high on the list, not as significant of role models and that in one 2016 study interviewing 220 teenagers, of all the people these teenagers came into contact with, family members were nominated most frequently as role models followed by close friends. Teachers fell within the last category, lost somewhere among other adults.

Fiona: Yeah.

Fiona: Ouch.

Fiona: Yes. Big ouch. On the one hand, I was very surprised to see this. But on the other, from my anecdotal evidence of having profiled literally hundreds of people, it doesn’t surprise me because it’s actually very rare that someone mentions a teacher. The thing I would say though, is when a teacher does have an impact, it can be enormous. It can be life changing.

Fiona: Wow. Yeah.

Fiona: I don’t think it’s to say, oh yeah, teachers. Doesn’t matter what you do, no one’s going to listen to you. I think it’s partly around the opportunity. Because in the UK school system, for example, teenagers will move around between classes. So they may only see the same teacher a few times a week. They don’t have a huge amount of exposure to them. And it’s very difficult to build the connection and trust, which we know connection and trust are two fundamental underpinnings of whether we do imitate someone or not. Whether we do let their behavior influence our behavior, whether that’s conscious or unconscious. And so that plays a role in getting in the way for teachers. And I think kids are more interested in what their peers think a lot of the time than what their teachers think. So they’re looking left and right to see, well, do my mates find that funny? If they do I’ll carry on, even if the teacher’s getting cross with me.


About Fiona Murden

Fiona Murden is the author of Mirror Thinking.

Fiona is a psychologist and multi award winning author. She’s also the founder of the company Aroka Ltd, where she brings cutting edge research to organizations  across business, health care, sports, and politics. 

Fiona co-hosts a psychology podcast, Dot-to-Dot, with sports psychologist Lou Jones, and recently partnered with charity Future First to provide mentoring and support to school children across the UK. 

As a speaker, Fiona has been featured at McKinsey & Co, Selfridge’s, The American Museum of Natural History, London School of Economics, NHS conferences and TEDx. Her work has appeared in Forbes, The Guardian, Women’s Health and more.

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