Values: being the best role model isn’t easy

Man seen from behind leading little boy by hand to look at the sea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Our value systems start developing in early childhood, and a good role model can have an enormous influence on your values. Learn how to be the best role model you can. In the process, influence others to adopt positive values.

Good role models

If you were lucky, you had a mentor or role model when you were young. So you’d know how crucial positive role modelling can be for young people. It can instil the belief that they can make positive life choices, and can also inspire them to live up to the example set by this person. 

And the impact of a great role model can last well into adulthood. 

Young people’s brains are like sponges

Young people take in everything that’s going on around them, even when you think they’re not watching. 

Most youngsters tend to place weight on values like fairness and kindness. They may not have the words to express what they believe, but they look up to people whose behaviour they admire. 

And if their role models don’t act the way they expect them to, they can be disappointed. 

Role models are often teachers, parents, siblings or older friends. However, sometimes role models don’t even realise younger people are looking at them to guide them through life. 

So even if you don’t really think you’re a role model, it’s still vital to model consistently positive values and behaviour. Not just occasionally, but day in, day out.

Of course, it’s easy to act well when everything’s fine. But good role models live in the real world. 

Being consistent isn’t easy

Ideally good role models would live up to their values all the time, no matter what. 

But they all face problems every day, and they’re not perfect. So even the best of them can slip up in the heat of the moment.

The true test of character comes when things are tough. 

And sometimes even good role models don’t act the way they’d like.  

Emotional stress can make it harder

And emotional stress can make it harder to act positively all the time.

Young people may not understand all the background issues going on in the lives of their role models.

But they can be sensitive to emotional tension or conflict. At those times, they closely observe how their role models behave. They can be quick to judge if your behaviour doesn’t match up to what you say.

Young people mimic role models

Every day, young people absorb lessons from the way you behave.

So if you’re a parent with an anger issue, chances are your child will have an anger issue too. 

If you repeatedly lash out in difficult situations, they’ll see that this behaviour often works in the short-term. And they’ll copy your actions to get what they want.

Unfortunately, they’re not mature enough to see the long-term damage that anger causes. And under pressure, most of us fall back on bad habits learned early on in life.

So even if your children eventually learn better ways of handling difficult situations, they’ll probably revert to anger under stress.

These entrenched behaviours can be hard to get rid of. Therefore, it’s better to prevent them in the first place, by brushing up on your parenting skills or learning anger management.

So how can you be the best role model you can?

1 Be aware of your negative behaviours

Accept that even if you’re a good role model, you’re not perfect. Then do the best you can not to model negative behaviours.

If you know act badly at times, that’s a plus. You’re facing up to an issue that needs attention. You can work to stop this happening again, and minimise any damage done.

That way you’ll model more positive and fewer negative behaviours. In addition, you can apologise for your behaviour.

2 Apologise if you slip up

Say you’ve acted angrily in front of some young people.

Let them know you’re not happy with your own behaviour. Apologise to anyone who was affected by the way you acted.

Tell them how you wish you’d behaved, and then commit to acting better in the future.

Describe to them the steps you’ll take to manage your anger or any other issue that was involved. And then follow through on what you say you’ll do to improve. Show by your behaviour over the longer term that you’ve changed.

3 Model positive change

If you follow these steps when you make a mistake, you’re modelling positive change.

So being the best role model you can be includes admitting mistakes. You also show you’re making amends for what you’ve done.

In other words, you’re taking responsibility for your behaviour, and not blaming others for your actions.

By modelling positive change, you give others hope that they can change too.

4 Understand young people’s emotions

Most of us believe in treating young people with respect. However that’s hard when a young person is having a “meltdown.”

Children and teens can’t fully manage their emotions yet. They get overwhelmed by things that seem trivial to adults. And they can switch instantly between intense happiness and despair.

How role models deal with these frequent emotional storms matters.

5 Know when you’re angry

Staying calm is hard if you’re at the limit of your own endurance. Dealing with a distraught child or teen is the last thing you need then.

At those times, it can feel impossible to show respect and care. But that’s exactly when it’s most important to be empathic.

If you’re aware of your own state of mind, you’re halfway there.

Realise that if you’re angry or agitated yourself, you’re not thinking clearly. You’ll probably regret anything you say at this stage. And the resulting guilt will make you feel bad later on. 

6 Model how to manage emotions

Being the best role model you can means learning how to manage these emotions yourself. Then you can show this in action. 

So let the young person know you’ll talk later when you’re both calmer.

Then you could get the young person to do mindfulness or relaxation exercises with you. Or you could do some pleasant, calming activity to reduce the tension. Learn these skills if you don’t know them yourself.

Later, you can discuss different ways of coping with emotions. Help them build the skills to tolerate anger or distress.

7 Set sensible limits

Modelling how to regulate emotions is important. So is teaching young people what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.

It’s fine to set sensible limits around what they can and can’t do. This doesn’t mean that you are punishing them. Instead, you’re teaching them how to regulate their behaviour in a reasonable manner.  If they can learn these skills, they’ll be able to fit into society with fewer problems. 

Limits should vary depending on the ages of the children or teenagers. And your limits will reflect your values.

For example, you may value cooperation. Therefore, you’ll teach young people to settle disputes with words rather than hitting.

However, be aware that smaller children don’t fully understand ideas like trust or cooperation. They only truly understand these abstract concepts as they grow a little older.

Many young adults are also still testing out different behaviours. At times they may cause alarm by straying from positive values. This can be stressful for others around them. 

8 Be non-judgmental

You can express concern about choices young adults are making. 

However, approach this in a non-judgmental way – as a discussion. A discussion in which you’re listening more than talking.

Explore what attracts them to act the way they’re acting.

In a neutral, non-blaming tone of voice, ask questions such as the following:

What do they gain from acting in these ways?

Are there any bad outcomes or consequences?

In all, are the benefits worth the problems?

If they could relive some situations, what would they do differently?

What could be some better alternatives?

And which choices would allow them to live up to their values? 

9 Don’t try to be perfect

So accept that at times you’ll be a good role model. And at times, you won’t.

But take heart.

Admitting mistakes, making amends, and listening to what’s going on in others’ lives will make you the best role model you can be.

Imagine how powerfully that could affect young people.

You’ll influence others more than you realise.

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