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Two letters from worried parents this week asked about the origins of bad behavior. One mother asked, “Could my teenager be influenced by the fact that my sister died while I was pregnant with him?” And a father asked, “I really think my three-year-old could be possessed. Do you think that’s possible?”

My first impulse was to answer both letters with “anything is possible.” Who could be sure that the trauma of a sister’s death did not affect a still-developing baby—even much later, say at 15? Could a three-year-old be possessed? If not by a demon, possibly by a virus or an allergy to chocolate?

The question is, are we looking for a solution to a problem or a place to put the blame so we don’t have to do anything?

Most parents have theorized about the origins of a child’s behavior. Here are some quotes from my readers and website visitors. From the believers in sibling influence: “Roy followed his big brother around even before he could walk! He has copied him ever since.” Others believe in the birth order theory: “She’s a third child so you have to expect she will be less aggressive and more artistic.” The genetic explanation is also popular: “Knowing her father, it’s easy to see where she gets her attitude!” And the critical experience theory is also common: “Ever since he got lost in the mall when he was three, Evan has never been comfortable with strangers.”

All of these theories—about siblings, birth order, genetics, and early experiences—provide some understanding, but such past influences cannot be changed.

Mom’s or Dad’s best opportunity to influence their teenager, really their only opportunity, is confined to the here-and-now—the present family interactions.

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