“My boyfriend and I were finishing packing to go spend the weekend with the family. While he was picking up, he told me: ‘don’t start cleaning now, you’ll do it when we get back’. I replied without thinking: ‘I don’t want to come back and find the house dirty’. In that instant, I realized that I was becoming my mother,” one person wrote on Reddit.
Her story is not unique. We’ve all had that moment of “enlightenment?” in which we realize that we are becoming more and more like our parents. Gone is that rebellious attempt to be ourselves, to differentiate ourselves and to self-determine ourselves. The lines that before seemed to distance themselves destined to never touch, now come closer. What happens to us?
Is it genetics?
No matter how long you have tried to resist, there will come a time when you start to notice that you are becoming more like your parents. You may catch yourself using expressions or phrases that you never thought you would say, or realize that you have habits and hobbies similar to theirs, precisely those habits and hobbies that used to drive you crazy or make fun of.
There are several theories that try to explain why we look like our parents as we get older. One of them blames genetics. A study recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry suggested that between 50 and 58% of our personality traits are hereditary. That means that some of our tendencies and behavior patterns may be programmed into our DNA – or at least that genetic makeup makes us more likely to develop them.
If your mother or father had obsessive traits, for example, and needed to double check that the door was locked or the lights were off, you’ll have a 27-47% chance of developing some obsessive behaviors. You may need to check that the gas is turned off properly before you leave the house or take a walk at night to make sure all the lights are off.
Question of environment, stress and laziness
Obviously, the environment in which we grow also influences. In childhood we learn many of our behaviors and attitudes from our parents. We learn how to behave in certain situations, what to say in certain conversations, and how to interact with the world around us.
Our parents also instill in us many of their values and we even share some of their basic assumptions about the world. As we get older, those lessons become more and more ingrained in our psyche, so it can be hard to shake them off.
In fact, many times we adopt our parents’ behaviors simply because they are comfortable and familiar. When we grow up surrounded by certain behavior patterns, we get used to them and can come to perceive them as “normal”. For example, if you always saw your parents get up early on weekends to clean the house or take care of the garden, you may later in life do the same without thinking about it.
Nor is it by chance that those moments of “insight” in which we discover that we act like our parents tend to occur in stressful situations or when we are exhausted. One person told: “When my mother was nervous, she would get irritated with the objects and yell at them. One day I found out that I did that same crazy thing, I yelled at them and then hit them”. When we’re stressed, our range of behavior options narrows, making it more likely that we’ll fall back on familiar reactions and patterns, which often come directly from our parents.
Our perspective changes as we mature
During youth, our personality becomes more heterogeneous. We began to free us from families’ rules and began to choose for ourselves. That makes us feel freer. It pushes us to distance ourselves from our parents simply because we need space to build our identity and we want to find our own way in life.
However, at a certain point that “revolution” against parents subsides. We no longer need to constantly confront their opinions or defend our ideas tooth and nail. We no longer feel that imperative need to differentiate and reaffirm ourselves. When the confrontation stops and we finally feel confident in ourselves, the similarities begin to emerge.
Also, as we gain experience and maturity, we realize that our parents were right about many things. We realize that the values we were taught are important, and we begin to better understand their attitudes and behaviors.
As one young man told with astonishment: “My girlfriend’s younger sisters complain about everything, so I always end up telling them: ‘Life is unfair, accept it.’ I hated my parents every time they told me this”. However, maturity can align our values and perspectives, ironing out differences that previously seemed insurmountable.
Also, as we get older, we can start to feel more nostalgic and attached to traditions and customs that remind us of our families and roots, so they no longer seem so terrible. Every life experience we accumulate becomes additional material to compare and find similarities or even wisdom in the words of our parents.
At what age do we start to look like our parents?
Looking in the mirror and noticing that we are more like our parents than we were a decade ago also makes us scrutinize our behaviors and words in search of other similarities. A study carried out in the United Kingdom revealed that when women reached the age of 33, they began to behave more like their mothers, adopting habits, tastes and attitudes very similar to theirs. Men, on the other hand, take one more year to resemble their parents: at approximately 34 years of age.
That age is not accidental. In fact, many people become parents in their early 30s. At this stage they not only have to face work obligations but also the demands of domestic life, which is why many end up understanding that if they plan things ahead of time, everything turns out better, that leaving the lights on means having to pay a more expensive bill and that cleaning the house after a trip is usually more tiring.
To cope with these new obligations, many people begin to unearth some of the customs they grew up with and turn to their parents’ habits and patterns to solve some of their problems. So the next time you get blurted out during an argument, “You’re like your mother” or “You look more like your father every day,” it might not be as bad as it seemed at 18 or 20.
Zwir, I. et. Al. (2020) Uncovering the complex genetics of human character. Molecular Psychiatry; 25:2295–2312.
De Silva, J. (2019) Women Start Turning Into Their Mothers At Age 33, Scientists Say. En: London Facial Plastic Surgery.
Pauls, D. L. (2010) The genetics of obsessive-compulsive disorder: a review. Dialogues Clin Neurosci; 12(2): 149–163.