Young children’s genetic makeup affects their parents

The genetic makeup of children can influence their parenting responses.

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The Yale psychiatrist Professor David Reiss, MD, founded the Early Growth and Development Study (EGDS), a long-term prospective adoption research, discovered that children may influence their parents and that some of these influences are hereditary in nature.

The EDGS was led by a group of researchers from six universities who worked together for 25 years. The EGDS began in 1994 and has now enlisted the assistance of 45 adoption agencies in 15 states. It has examined information from interviews, surveys, and in-person observations of 561 newborns who were adopted soon after birth and the parents who gave birth to them and raised them. 

The data revealed four significant themes: that children’s genetic makeup may cause distinct parenting reactions, that birth parents and adopted children are usually assumed to be hereditary, and that similarities between raising parents and children are usually assumed to be environmental. 

Reiss, a professor of clinical child psychiatry, said, “All working on the study are still amazed that we can predict how an adopted child is parented just from a knowledge of birth parent characteristics.” 

The lack of interest in social engagement by birth parents predicts hostility in relationships between adopted children and their rearing parents, which appears to be related to the adopted child’s lack of interest in engaging with the adopted parents, a trait genetically impacted by their birth parents.

In some situations, these birth parent-child-adoptive parent relationships led to behavioral issues in the youngster. For example, adopted children of extremely aggressive birth parents displayed more anger, which provoked more parental hostility. 

This parental reaction exacerbated the child’s behavioral issues. Sequences like these may be avoided if parents had a happy marriage. The full impact of a child’s genetic composition on development is determined by how parents respond to them.

The researcher from yale university commented, “The full impact of children’s genetic makeup on their development depends on how parents respond to them. We were pleasantly surprised to observe that very troubling genetically influenced traits in children, such as a worrying mixture of callousness and fearlessness, could be offset by parental warmth. Favorable responses to children that offset genetic risk are enhanced if parents have a positive relationship with one another.”

Professor Leslie Leve, a principal investigator of EGDS at the University of Oregon, commented, “In this form of parenting, parents give their children clear directions and help them focus their attention.” 

The level of behavior issues was higher among children of birth parents with little to no sign of psychiatric problems but with more structured parenthood.

According to the research, children’s genetic makeup determines the type of parenting they require. For example, children with a wide range of symptoms and behavior problems benefited from highly organized parenting. 

However, children with little or no signs of psychological challenges had higher behavioral problems. Furthermore, children’s genetic makeup was discovered to operate as an accelerator or brake on the downward spirals of parent-child contact. 

Children of depressed birth mothers, for example, reacted more badly to their parents’ negative parenting than children of birth mothers with modest levels of depression symptoms. On the other hand, children whose birth parents valued social engagement had a lower genetically determined likelihood of receiving angry parental responses, particularly from fathers. 

Finally, the study confirmed several critical parental functions. Using an adoption study design has the advantage of ruling out genes shared by parents and children as potential reasons for connections between parenting parents and their offspring. 

Adoptive parental harshness, for example, was linked to increased child aggression from 27 months to 4.5 years of age. The benefits, however, were most pronounced in fathers and were not seen in children aged 4.5 to 6 years.

Because the impacts of genes shared by parents and children have been ruled out, the EGDS provides uniquely robust data on this critical period for parental influence. Also, the adoption study design allowed researchers to show that depression and anxiety symptoms in parents can influence children’s anxiety and other behavior problems, implying an environmental effect.

Birth parents’ depression symptoms were similarly linked to child behavior issues, implying a genetic and environmental link. Notably, the study discovered that children’s symptoms influence the anxiety and depression symptoms of their parenting parents.

The researcher noted that “two distinctive features of this work are the use of genetic tools to understand social processes in the family and the surprising role of intrinsic child characteristics in shaping these social processes.”

The authors concluded, “To be maximally effective. Our findings suggest that planned efforts to enhance child development must be tailored to the unique characteristics that the child brings to the family; thus, interventions need to heighten parents’ abilities to detect, as early as possible, the signs of both the genetically influenced assets and liabilities of their children. Genetic perspectives may assist in that discovery.”

The study was funded by grants from various National Institutes of Health departments.

Journal Reference:

  1. Reiss, D., Ganiban, Leve,etal . Parenting in the Context of the Child: Genetic and Social Processes. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. DOI: 10.1111/mono.12460