For those very few of you who do not subscribe to Translational Psychiatry, you may have missed an interesting recent article. It’s entitled “Differential susceptibility in youth: evidence that 5-HTTLPR x positive parenting is associated with positive affect ‘for better and worse.’”
This is what it’s all about: 5-HTTLPR is a gene. According to a combination of three studies involving 1,874 kids ages nine to 15, the way they respond to poor parenting is likely associated with what we will refer to as “The Gene.” The combined study sought to determine why it is that some kids who come from parents who are toxic, mean, or neglectful do just fine, while others become lousy SOBs, attracting neither affection nor respect.
Or, as the dilemma is posited in the study:
“This traditional vulnerability perspective highlights that certain individuals, frequently for genetic reasons, are more vulnerable to psychopathology and poor outcomes compared with others, and this risk is exerted only in response to the negative effects of environmental influences. In contrast, the DSH (differential susceptibility hypothesis) proposes that some individuals, often for genetic reasons, are more responsive to environmental experiences in a ‘for better and worse’ fashion. These genetically susceptible individuals are expected to exhibit poor functioning and psychopathology under adverse environmental conditions (for example, negative events), but also to flourish and benefit from the positive environmental conditions (for example, supportive parenting).” Veritable poetry.
All of this means that certain kids are more susceptible to the shortcomings or strengths of their moms’ and dads’ parenting abilities than others. The Gene affects the chemical serotonin, which affects moods. It comes in three variants and one-fifth of children are born with a variant that makes them highly susceptible to the impacts of neglectful, abusive or insensitive parents.
This study also examined whether kids with that allele, or gene variant, might be highly sensitive to the effects of good parenting, advancing them into adulthoods that are well-adjusted.
How the researchers determined what good parenting is, whether the respective parents fit into the categories, and how well-adjusted the kids were, depended on three types of evaluation. The first study assessed the quality of parenting using a widely accepted questionnaire on how they parent, while the kids’ behaviors were measured by another widely accepted tool.
The second study evaluated the quality of parenting based on laboratory observations of parent-child interactions. Trained observers coded the observed interactions.
The third study used self-reporting, which included reports from both the children and the parents. What the researchers found was that with warm and supportive parents, the kids with The Gene were just as likely to develop into happy and well-adjusted people as the those kids who had lousy parents were to go the other way.
Let’s put this another way. Most kids have a variation of the gene that makes them relatively impervious to the quality of parenting they get. But the 20 percent who have the “homozygous short allele” of The Gene are far more sensitive to the quality of their parenting.
If you would like to go into more technical detail about this study, we refer you to http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v1/n10/full/tp201144a.html.
The nature versus nurture debate has raged on for many generations. This study has brought it into better focus. The crap shoot of genetics is affected by the impact of how we nurture, and vice versa. How nurture or environment impacts the early stages of life depends substantially, it seems, on the random genetic makeup we inherit.
This study, of course, is only a small sample of these mutually affecting influences. And it should give would-be, and even current, parents food for thought about how there is only so much you can do as a parent that will determine the type of child you will raise.
We deal with this topic in the first chapter of Enough of Us. And it should make us think twice about what to expect before making children.