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Genetics of Parenting: the Power of the Dark Side



Dr Bonamy Oliver highlights how unpicking parent-child relationships that are shaped by genetically-driven parent and child characteristics has the potential to help us better understand child development.

So…you have a baby.  And the storm of advice descends.  With good or bad will, with your or their own interests at heart and everything in between, who doesn’t want to tell you how to parent?  Friends, family, media - they all ‘know’ how to help you raise a balanced, well-adjusted and smart child.

But the effect of parent ‘on’ child over-simplifies a complex relationship.  Many years of research show that the effect of parent on child might just as easily be over-simplified as that of child ‘on’ parent; the relationship between parent and child is, after all, a reciprocal one.  

Parenting exists within the context of many things that are important for child outcomes (parental mental health, inter-parental relations, socio-demographic factors, social support…I could go on), but there is no denying that parents (I include all ‘primary caregivers’ under that term here) form the cornerstone for children’s early experience and socialisation.

It’s an important job. 

A parenting environment characterised by warmth and responsiveness, and consistent and sensitive discipline is associated with increased child behaviour regulation and social competence.  But children with experiences of parental negativity and criticism, and inconsistent and harsh discipline are at increased risk of conduct and other problems. Approximately 1 in 10 children in the UK have mental health problems that reach diagnostic criteria.  Of these, conduct problems are the most common, and they convey substantial long-term risk for diverse mental health problems in adulthood.

The pressure, it seems, is on.

For me, understanding the parent-child relationship and its association with child outcomes is critical and interesting.

One neat way to examine these questions is using behavioural genetic designs - classic quasi-experimental designs such adoption and twin studies - because they allow us to disentangle genetic and environmental influences on both individual differences in child outcomes, and child experience.  Thanks to such studies, we know that individual differences in ostensibly ‘environmental’ experiences in life, including parenting, are at least to some extent related to individual differences in genetic propensity.  When we think about that ‘genetic propensity’ as including how we select, create, and modify our own environment (so-called gene-environment correlation), it becomes easier to understand.

Many behavioural genetic parenting studies have focused on distinctions between parental ‘feelings’ (e.g., warmth or hostility) and parental ‘control’ (e.g., calm or harsh discipline), showing that genetically influenced child traits play a bigger role in eliciting parental feelings than control. Inspired by work indicating differential influences for negative and positive psychological constructs, I wanted to ask questions across feelings and control: Do individual differences in the ‘light’, positive side of parenting (warmth, consistency and sensitivity) reflect child-driven genetic influence to the same extent as the ‘dark’, negative side of parenting (hostility, yelling, smacking)?

From data collected as part a large UK-based twin study (TEDS: Twin’s Early Development Study) the answer seems to be no. The dark side of parenting seems to show substantially greater genetic influence than the light side, suggesting, in this child-based design, that parental hostility and harshness is more responsive to negative genetically influenced child characteristics than parental warmth and calmness is to positive child traits.

Unpicking how parent-child relationships are shaped by genetically-driven parent and child characteristics has the potential to help us better understand child development.  Moreover, teasing out genetic and environmental influences on negative and positive aspects of all relationships in the family, for example sibling and inter-parental relationships as well as those between parent and child, will tell us more about how characteristics of family members play into family processes and mental health.

Ultimately, I am interested in tying my research into contemporary prevention and intervention science, since negative child characteristics are increasingly thought to impact the effectiveness of parenting interventions.  Basic science and intervention are often seen as poor marriage partners.  In fact, while they may bring their own characteristics to the relationship, I believe there can be harmony.


The ‘dark’ side of parenting discussed here includes harsh aspects of parenting within the normal range, it does not encompass child maltreatment or abuse.  These childhood experiences sit apart – evidence suggests that children’s genetic influences are largely irrelevant for their vulnerability to physical maltreatment.

Oliver, B. R., Trzaskowski, M., & Plomin, R. (2013, December 23). Genetics of Parenting: The Power of the Dark Side. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0035388