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What to do when teens ‘forget’ to do their chores

A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens.

The Problem

Forgetfulness is by far a teen's No. 1 excuse for actions not done.

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Fifteen-year-old Gabriel's mother returns from work.

"Gabriel, I thought I asked you to empty the dryer and bring all the laundry from the basement."

"I forgot."

"What do you mean you forgot?"

"I forgot. I'm human. It's not my fault. I forgot."

"What do you mean it's not your fault?"

"It's not. I forgot. I was going to do it, but I forgot."

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By adolescence the vast majority of teens learn that "I forgot" works much better than the truth, which is "I didn't feel like it."

It's a problem. You need them to help around the house, but they have a magic phrase which they think absolves them from responsibility for all unpleasant physical activity.

"Well it does. What am I supposed to do? I forgot."

What not to do

Do not address the forgetfulness issue. You will only lose.

"Gabriel, you didn't forget. You're just too lazy to give me the least little bit of help when I ask for it."

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"That's not fair. I did too forget. I have a lot on my mind."

"The only thing on your mind is your stupid video games and supper."

"That's not fair, Mom. You never give me credit for anything," and the hint of tears starts to well up in Gabriel's eyes.

What to do

Ignore the "I forgot" and instead address what's relevant, which is that Gabriel's mother asked him to do something, and that – for whatever reason – he didn't do it. Hence, when confronted with her son's "I forgot," she should ignore his excuse and make him do it immediately.

"I asked you to do something and you didn't do it. Now I need you to do it right away."

"But Mom, I'm really tired."

"Gabriel. Now!"

But more important is the future. It is then that Gabriel's mother must present him with the consequence of his previous unreliability. So the next time she asks him to do something the deal is a little different:

"Gabriel, I need you to empty the dryer and bring all the laundry from the basement."

"Sure, Mom. I will." says Gabriel, as usual immediately departing for his room.

No, Gabriel. Now!"

"I said I would do it."

"Now, Gabriel."

"It's not fair."

But Gabriel's forgetfulness has taken away his right to a future in which he can participate. He is only allowed now.

"Just one time I forget. And now for the rest of my life I have to be a slave. Besides, I really am tired. I think I have mononucleosis."

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.

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