Why Your Kid Might Not Respond to Your Good—or Bad—Parenting

Scientists have a discovered a gene that they believe allows some kids to shake off abusive or neglectful parents to become happy adults

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We know that bad parents have the power to mess up a kid. Almost any self-examining adult can tell you that. But some kids seem less susceptible to the incompetencies of their parents. They're hardier. Why is it that some who grow up with neglectful or abusive parents can shake it off to emerge confident, happy adults, while others never seem to recover from their parents' shortcomings?

This phenomenon may occur because we have a genetic predisposition, not necessarily to turn in to good or bad or happy or sad people, but to be more or less susceptible to those around us. Earlier research has put forth the differential susceptibility hypothesis (DSH), which suggests that people vary in how reactive they are to the environment, both positive and negative. And based on the results of a new study, kids, according to their genetic makeup, seem to vary in how susceptible they are to their parents' capabilities and failures.

Kids with shorter versions of the gene were more reactive to their parents' methods, whether good or bad, than kids with longer versions of the gene.

The length of a gene (the serotonin transporter gene, 5-HTTLPR) that helps determine how much of the neurotransmitter serotonin circulates in the brain varies from person to person. Having shorter copies of the gene is linked not only to lower mood, but it is also associated with being more sensitive to one's environment, both good and bad. Author of the current study, Ben Hankin, says that "5-HTTLPR has been associated in some studies with negative temperament and risk to emotional problems, so we reasoned that 5-HTTLPR may be one gene that demonstrates susceptibility, or sensitivity to the environment, and this association could happen for better and for worse."

To test this theory, Hankin and his team measured the length of this gene in about 1,900 kids, aged 9-15. They also did a few measures to see what kinds of parents the kids had. In the first one, they asked the parents questions about their parenting techniques -- whether they tended to use positive, supporting methods or not. In the second, the researchers observed the parents themselves. And in the last, they asked the kids about their parents' techniques. They also measured the kids' disposition, determining whether their affect (mood) was more positive or negative.

In all of the experiments, the researchers found that kids with shorter versions of the gene were more reactive to their parents' methods, whether good or bad, than kids with longer versions of the gene. For instance, children with shorter 5-HTTLPR genes were less happy when they had unsupportive parents, but were also much happier when their parents were more supportive. In contrast, the moods of kids with longer versions of the gene were relatively stable across different kinds of parental support.

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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