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Ask Rene: Is This Bad Behavior Nature Or Nurture?


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

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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.

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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]

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  1. April Brucker

    January 31, 2011 at 10:33 am

    I think this one is a toughie. For starters, I think nurture does play a strong role in how a kid turns out. As a child I had what was considered a lion mom aka someone who was no nonsense, no bullshit. I knew don’t talk back or get the backhand. End of story. As a result I knew how to behave and everyone complimented her on how mannered we were. On the other hand, I had a friend of mine who’s mom wasn’t so big on discipline and this kid was always acting out in school. She was playing at my house, didn’t want to leave, and threw herself on the floor crying. I was appalled.
    I also have six cousins who are adopted who’s parents tow the same sort of tough line with them and they have different set of genetics entirely but you would never know. They are all for the most part sweet, well behaved kids.
    On the other hand, as you brought up, nature does play a role in the case of clinical depression, etc. Clinical depression, bi-polar, and alcoholism/eating disorders, and addiction, are genetic in families. Some siblings get the gene and others do not, however they had the same parents. In a case like that it is nature and the parents when they see their children are dealing with this must not blame themselves. Self blame not only is useless with all the data science has to offer, but it wastes time and energy that could be spent not only treating your child but saving them.

    As for nature again, in cases where the children are adopted these things could be factors too. While my cousins, all six of them, are fine for the most part, I have known people who adopted children who exibited severe behavorial problems in school. Turned out when they looked back at the biological family’s records that the birth mother was either a drug addict or suffered from mental illness. So sometimes, if nature throws a kink in the wagon nurture can only do so much.
    Sorry this is so long. Just had a lot to say

  2. juli

    January 31, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    If moodiness is the worst she is being dealt, then her son is just fine. He sounds pretty darn normal to me.
    Good going on pointing out the error of daddy bashing (even if he really deserves it). Kids will only see it as either another reason to rebel, or they will internalize it into poor self esteem.
    Your son will be back.

  3. Jen (ImoBlog)

    January 31, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    My father was not present while I was growing up. I have a younger brother who struggled through his teen years and lives life with some strange attitudes. He is a very unique person and can be extremely moody.

    When I learned that my dad was going to pass from cancer I made the decision to go visit him and spend some time getting to know him. I was SHOCKED by how similar he was to my brother. Same attitudes, same moodiness, same humor, they even agreed completely on politics. These two have spent very little time together so it was baffling.

    I don’t have a conclusion for the question but wanted to share my personal experience.

  4. M.E. Johnson

    February 1, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    One of my sons looks and acts just like MY grandma ~ she died when I was 12. I’ve seen that in others too. I believe that the genes, physical and mental pass down possibly forever.

  5. M.E. Johnson

    February 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    I just read in an article titled:

    “My 2 adopted boys had a perfect childhood, yet both are heroin addicts and in jail just like their birth mother.”

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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