Parents' Genes, Not Parents' Arguing, May Cause Children's Conduct Problems

Feb. 7, 2007 -- Children’s conduct problems -- skipping school, sneaking out of the house, lying to parents, shoplifting, or bullying other children -- are a major source of concern for parents and teachers. As a potential cause of these problems, parents’ marital conflict has received a lot of research attention. Now a new University of Virginia study finds that parents’ fighting may not be to blame but rather that parents who argue a lot may pass on genes for disruptive behavior to their children.
The findings are published in the January/February 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.
A group of researchers from U.Va. and several other universities looked at this question, studying 1,045 twins and their 2,051 children. Some of the parents were identical twins and shared all of their genes and some were fraternal and shared only half of their genes.
The study found that parents’ fighting is not likely a cause of children’s conduct problems. On the other hand, parents’ genes influenced how often they argued with their spouses and these same genes, when passed to their children, caused more conduct problems.

“This study suggests that marital conflict is not a major culprit, but genes are,” said K. Paige Harden, a graduate student and the lead researcher at U.Va. “Our findings have potential implications for treating conduct problems: Focusing on a child’s parents, as is common in family therapy, may not be as effective as focusing on the child.”

Harden’s U.Va. co-authors are Eric Turkheimer, professor of psychology, and Robert Emery, professor of psychology.    

The study was supported, in part, by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.