How Do I Get My Child to Stop Mimicking Bad Behavior?

Kids are master mimics and it can be easy for them to pick up unpleasant behaviors. Here are ways to navigate that tricky situation.

Illustration of a little girl doing facial imitations in her bedroom mirror.
Photo: Illustration by Emma Darvick

Mom of Frustrated 2-Year-Old

I have a 2-year-old who is very smart and picks up on a lot and repeats it. I’ve had a hard a time with asking family not to display bad behavior or not to try to get her to say or do bad things because they think it's funny. They just tell me “I’m no fun” and keep doing it. I'm talking curse words, teaching her to lift her legs and pass gas on Grandma, teaching her to lift her shirt and shout "Spring break!" like someone on a Girls Gone Wild video, and other behaviors I'd be embarrassed to have my kid repeat in public. 

How do I try to prevent my child from repeating their "fun" bad behavior, and how do I address this better with the family?

—Mom of Frustrated 2-Year-Old

Dear Mom of Frustrated 2-Year-Old,

Your concerns are so valid because these behaviors will not only no longer be cute in a few years, they could get her in trouble! Fortunately, although 2-year-olds are master mimics, she is too young to grasp the meaning of her behaviors, except that they make people laugh. And as anyone who has met a young child knows, laughing is one of the best ways to make sure a toddler will do it again. And again.

The good news: your daughter's young and plastic brain has plenty of time to forget all of this and learn more positive behaviors. The bad news: you can't stop her from repeating behaviors, so you have to deal with the grown-ups, even if they aren't acting grown.

I see two layers to your concerns: first, your family's view that this use of your daughter for their entertainment is harmless; second, that they will not listen to you, as her mother. Read on for tips on how to address the problem and set boundaries with your family.

"Harmless" Fun?

I will start with giving your family some benefit of the doubt: your daughter copying these behaviors does not really hurt anyone. Some families do not even classify "curse words" as off limits, arguing this is a natural part of language and making some words out of bounds is unnecessary.

Passing gas on grandma? I'd first wonder if grandma OK with this because that's a consent issue. As part of the timeless appeal of "potty humor," farting is a joke that every child under 7 that I know finds hysterical. And of course, plenty of adults can momentarily regress to a 4-year-old mentality. The shirt up for spring break, however, is definitely highly problematic for reasons that would take us down a long path of messaging about bodies and boundaries and consent.

A 2-year-old has no understanding of the "right time and place" for certain behaviors, so you are correct that she could repeat all of these in a public way you will find embarrassing. More importantly, however, you want her exposed to more positive behaviors, so she uses her mimicking skill set for good.

Although your family finds this all hilarious, young children are truly sponges and you understandably want her learning more socially acceptable behaviors.

Parenting Boundaries

What I find more of a problem in your situation is that your family does not respect your parenting boundaries. This also has the potential to escalate to higher stake differences in the future, like someone thinking it's no big deal to let a 10-year-old take some sips of beer (it is a big deal).

By setting stronger boundaries now, you will save yourself much more handwringing in the future. Every family has its "special" quirks, personalities, and habits, but the following steps lay a good foundation for getting started with making some change.

Shaping behaviors—adult version

As a child psychologist, I regularly work with families on how to address problem behaviors with their children. However, adults sometimes need similar approaches (we all have that inner child, for better or worse).

Since it sounds like you have already expressed your concerns and your family has not listened, we will skip past the "communicate!" advice to focus on steps to change the problem behaviors.

  • Clearly identify the problem: They are ignoring your requests to stop teaching your daughter behaviors you do not want her learning.
  • Be very clear with your expectations: When they are around your daughter, they should not teach her curse words, act out spring break, fart on grandma, and so on. You might need to write a list!
  • Identify and enforce consequences: If they do not follow your rules, the fun ends. You take her away from them, whether to another room, out for a walk, or even back home. This one really depends on what is realistic in your situation. But the point is you stop the behavior by removing your daughter if they don't listen to your rules.
  • Stay strong: Chances are they will test your new limits because they won't believe it until they see it.

Keep Talking

I realize setting these boundaries could tap into some deeper issues. Many possible family dynamics could be part of your family ignoring your parenting requests.

If there are at least one or two family members who you feel closer to and are more receptive, be open with them about why you are taking this so seriously. This honestly may help you enlist them to back you up so you don't feel as on your own. This back-up can also strengthen your resolve to follow through on making this big change.

The Bottom Line

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but I saved the best news for last: you are the biggest influence on your daughter. As her primary person, your behavior matters most for her learning and development.

When she sees you set a limit with grown-ups around certain behaviors, she learns you do not approve and stores that away. She may have gotten some good laughs from your family, but between you taking these steps to put a hard stop to it, and continuing to be a positive role model, she will be just fine.

Submit your parenting questions, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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