Ask Rene:
Is This Bad Behavior Nature Or Nurture?

Hi Rene,

Love the site and your great common sense advice!

Here’s my question. My nephew Robert hasn’t seen his father in years but is somehow adopting all of his dad’s bad habits!

Robert is 17 and his mom (my sister Laura) is smart, driven, passionate and fun. Robert, on the other hand can be moody, lazy, depressed and snappy.

These are all traits that remind both Laura and I of his father – and yet Robert’s dad left home when he was just 4 years old.

Do you think it’s possible that Robert has genetically inherited these bad habits? And if so – how can we change them?

We’re really puzzled!

Carol, San Francisco

Dear Carol:

Thanks so much for writing in and for the nice words. I actually think I know Robert because he lives in my house.. possibly every home a teenager resides.  Robert’s father may have been good for nothing, but I would be careful not to confuse normal teen behavior with character flaws.

Let me tell you what does concern me about your letter. You describe your sister, in glowing terms (understandable and what I would expect one to say about their sister) and less than stellar ones to describe Robert and his father. I do wonder how much of that bleeds over into your dealings with your nephew. In other words, how much are you playing up Laura and, though not intentional, ascribing the undesirable behaviors that you see in Robert to his father? And in what tone are these things being said?

I think I have mentioned this before but my sister was once married to a jerk. Together they produced two wonderful boys and then split up while the boys were young. My sister struggled mightily, never getting her court-ordered child support and really just scraping by. I was furious about it; she was too but she never let the boys see that and never bad-mouthed their father to them.  Those boys are men now and have drawn their own conclusions about him. Ultimately, Robert will do the same.

But just because Robert is moody, lazy and snappy doesn’t mean Laura has to accept that behavior; here’s what I would suggest.

Read more: Top Talker: High School Student Sues Her Parents For Private School Tuition


Minority black doctor working at the hospital

I would suggest your sister take Robert to his doctor and rule out anything physical, like clinical depression (which is different from the moody blues) or bipolar illness. If he is suffering with those, therapy and medication could help.

Read more: Good Enough Mother: How I Hit The Brink – And Found My Way Back!



Creative Commons / Wonderlane

If you have ruled out a physical disorder, it might still be a good idea for Robert to talk to someone. There is so much that goes on at this stage of development and he might be struggling to process it all. A therapist might be able to help.

Read more: Single Mom Slice of Life: I Admit It…. I Need Help!



I’m sure not ALL of his traits are bad, so how about trying a little positive reinforcement? Play up the things you want to see more of and downplay the ones you want to see less. If he sets the table or cooks dinner for Laura and himself without being asked, praise him.

Read more: Monday Morning Motivation: 4 Things You Can Do For A Better 2014

Also give Robert some space – they need it. Sometimes the only time I see my own daughter is when she comes out of her room for food. It’s okay to let them be alone with their thoughts and you’d be surprised how much kids will divulge when you let them come to you.

Good luck!

Do you have a question for Rene? She has an answer. Click here and fire away!

[Editor’s Note: This post originally aired 1/20/2011]