Genetics May Influence Effects of Divorce on Children


One of the most consistent research findings that explore the effects of divorce on children is that the results are inconsistent. Yes, that is what I meant to write. Thirty years of scientific study have concluded that there are no simple answers to the question about how children will be affected by divorce. In 2010 Paul Amato summarized current research and concluded, “A reasonable assumption is that divorce can have varied consequences, with some children showing improvements in well-being, other children showing little or no change, some children showing decrements that gradually improve and yet other children developing problems that persist into adulthood.”

This does not mean that scientists have not gained insight into what is best for children. For example, there is persuasive evidence that children are more likely to have difficulties when they live in households with lower incomes, parents who are having difficulty adjusting and who are inconsistent in their parenting, and continue to be in conflict with their former partner. But despite these findings, there continues to be some children who weather even these difficult circumstances. “Why?” ask scientists. “What is different about these children?”

As we learn more about the role of biology in human development, there is a growing body of research that has been exploring the role of genes in the well-being of children. Could there be “protector” genes that make some children more invulnerable to their family circumstances? Are there genes that make children more at-risk of poor outcomes when there are family crises or transitions? The scientific story won’t be any simpler than the current explanations about the consequences of divorce for children, but this work promises to provide us with a richer understanding of how our biological selves interact with the social environments of family, school, and neighborhood to result in who we become.

A recent study by Esther Nederhof and colleagues took a careful look how genes and family environment may influence outcomes for children whose parents were divorced. In this study, the scientists were particularly interested in comparing adolescents with and without specific dopamine genotypes and the marital status of their parents; they looked at antisocial and aggressive behavior in each group. In part, the scientists hypothesized that “some individuals carry a genetic liability that predisposes them to problematic functioning (e.g., antisocial behavior, depression) when confronted with a contextual stressor [such as the divorce of their parents].” The results indicate that that two of the three dopamine genotypes tested showed these types of results. Adolescents whose parents had divorced were more likely to engage in antisocial behavior if they had the dopamine genotype. If they did not have the genotype, then their antisocial behavior was similar to adolescents whose parents had not divorced. In short, for those adolescents without the specific dopamine genotype, the marital status of their parents was not a factor in the amount of antisocial behavior they displayed. This evidence indicates that children with a particular genetic makeup are more vulnerable to difficulties due to their parent’s divorce.

See Huffington Post for a more complete discussion of this research….

 

Genes matter less for children of divorce


Scientists have long known that development is a combination of genes and the environment.  There is growing evidence that the nature of the environment allows or prevents genes from guiding development.  Sylvan Robbers and colleagues recently published a study that examined the degree to which genetic or environmental factors played a bigger role in children’s internalizing (e.g., depression) or externalizing (e.g., aggression)  behaviors following the divorce of their parents.  The results indicate that the behavior of children whose parents are divorced were more influenced by environmental factors than children whose parents were not divorced.  This finding reminds us how powerful and important parents and other caregivers are in influencing postdivorce adjustment.

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Robbers, S., van Oort, F., Huizink, A., Verhulst, F., van Beijsterveldt, C., Boomsma, D., & Bartels, M. (2012) Childhood problem behavior and parental divorce: Evidence for gene–environment interaction  Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology doi:10.1007/s00127-011-0470-9  Full Paper