Dear Dr. Buckingham,
My 8-year-old son has recently started to act out in a very aggressive manner toward female children at school. His temper is getting worse by the day. Initially, I did not understand where he was learning the behavior. However, after talking to the school therapist, I learned that he might be picking up the behavior from my husband.
My husband is a very aggressive person and he does not always pay attention to whether or not our son is observing him. He loses his temper quickly and says whatever comes to his mind. My husband is kind to our son, but he displays aggression toward me. The school therapist talked to me about kids learning behavior through vicarious experience. I really did not understand what she was talking about and I was too embarrassed to ask her to clarify. For the sake of my son, can you please explain? My Son Is Learning The Wrong Things: What Is Vicarious Observation?
Dear Confused Parent,
I appreciate your willingness to seek understanding. The best way that you can help your son is to gain knowledge about things that influence him. Human behavior is a social science and the more you know about the better prepared you will be to deal with it. Unfortunately, a lot of parents do not seek understanding of things that are very technical or scientific in nature.
Vicarious observation refers to a process where a child compares him or herself to someone else. Children typically learn more from vicarious experience because they are uncertain about their own abilities and have limited personal experience. Therefore, parents are instrumental in influencing their children through observational and vicarious learning. For example, if a child observes a model of an aggressive parent, the child is likely to engage in similar behavior or avoid the behavior, depending on the outcome.
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As an illustration, social scientists conducted an experiment in which children were exposed to a model who acted aggressively against a large inflatable plastic punching doll. After observing the models’ aggressiveness toward the doll, each child was placed in a room and shortly after entering the room each child imitated similar aggressive behavior toward the doll. The results of the experiment revealed that an aggressive model could motivate a child to behave aggressively in new, unmolded ways.
Through vicarious arousal, children acquire attitudes, values, and emotional dispositions toward persons, places, and things. Vicarious learning enables children to learn new behaviors without experiencing difficulties or challenges in performing the task. For example, through vicarious learning, children can learn appropriate and/or inappropriate ways of expressing and processing emotional arousal by observing their parent(s) engage in such behavior. When children observe individuals functioning in a positive manner and treating others pleasantly, positive affect is generated. In contrast, when children observe individuals functioning in a negative manner and treating others unpleasantly, negative affect is generated. This occurs because children are easily aroused by the emotional expressions of others.
Initial childhood developmental experiences are centered in the family and are mediated by adults. Children’s exposure to and/or observation of certain behaviors in their environments can strongly influence the development of their cognitive self-arousal and emotional reactions. Children typically model emotional reactions they observe, and through vicarious and observational learning, perceptions regarding task performance or accomplishment are developed. Children acquire lasting attitudes and emotional reactions that may extend into adulthood. With this in mind, one could assume that your son’s behavior is a by-product of observing your husband.
Again, I thank you for seeking understanding because parents are key figures in their children’s development and can make things happen through their actions. Both personal behavior and environmental influences shape children’s behavior. Given this, I would recommend that you speak with your husband about his behavior and consider seeking professional counseling.
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Disclaimer: The ideas, opinions and recommendations contained in this post are not intended as a substitute for seeking professional counseling or guidance. Any concerns or questions that you have about relationships or any other source of potential distress should be discussed with a professional, in person. The author is not liable or responsible for any personal or relational distress, loss or damage allegedly arising from any information or recommendations in this post.