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Do Genes Explain Why Divorce Affects Children In Different Ways?

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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. Nederhof and her colleagues followed a sample of over 1,000 Dutch adolescents from about 11 to 16 years of age. They looked at families in which both parents were married and families in which there was a divorce. The scientists measured several dopamine genes that have been shown to be important in understanding aggressive and antisocial behaviors and have been connected to variations in other social environments. Children's aggressive and antisocial behavior which has been commonly linked to divorce was also measured.

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.

Often there are findings that indicate that boys are more likely than girls to be antisocial. It is worth noting that this genetic and marital status pattern held true for both adolescent boys and girls. Girls with divorced parents and the specific dopamine genotype also had more antisocial behavior.

So where does this leave us? Should parents planning to divorce get their children's genes tested? No. This is an early study that looks at these issues. Scientists are a long way from drawing firm conclusions about the role of genes in development and about the ways in which genes and the social environment interact. However, this is a reminder that understanding the effects of divorce on children's development is complicated. At present scientists can provide some general, useful guidelines for parents (See Robert Emery, The Truth about Children and Divorce and JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Putting Children First), but there are few absolutes in the parenting of children.