Everyone knows that our children inherit various traits from their parents. For instance, children inherit their parents’ eyes and hair, body build and stature. It’s in the genes, which are segments of DNA. Our children get our DNA and so inherit various family traits. But recent research suggests that parents may also have the power to alter their children’s DNA. Specifically, they can introduce additional instructions onto the DNA that will impact how their children’s internal systems will “read the gene” and respond. No, it doesn’t involve surgery or genetic manipulation. Parents have the power to impact gene expression simply through the manner in which they parent. Let me explain.
Researchers at the University of Leuven interviewed adolescents between the ages of 12 and 16 years of age, dividing them into two groups. One group reported their parents as giving support, age expected autonomy, and affection. This group had “supportive parents.” The second group reported their parents as using physical punishment and manipulative behaviors to get their children to comply to overly strict demands and rules. This group had “harsh parents.”
The researchers then measured the “range of methylation at more than 450,000 places on the DNA.” Methylation is a normal process in which small chemical molecules become added to the DNA and alter how the instructions of the DNA are read and acted upon. In other words, methylation changes how genes are expressed in ways that, ultimately, other people can observe.
The researchers found that those teens who reported having harsher parents had higher rates of methylation than those who had supportive parents. That higher rate of methylation is also associated with depression. In other words, teens who reported having harsher parents also showed a greater tendency toward depression than those who had supportive parents and that tendency toward depression showed up on a microscopic genetic level. Harsh parenting had changed the genetic and DNA structure of their children.
I offer this information as a simple word of warning. How we parent our children may impact them even down to the genetic level. With that caveat, here are some important parenting tips to keep in mind.
- Spend time with your children, lots of time. Engage with them in a variety of settings. Laugh with them. Cry with them. Have fun with them. Have serious conversations with them. Enjoy their company as often as possible. Time is one of the most valuable currencies with which our children measure love.
- Listen to your children. Listen to understand them and how they think. Listen from the developmental level of your child’s mind. Don’t expect your 4-year-old to think like a 16-year-old. Let them think like a 4-year-old and enjoy the fascination and wonder of their 4-year-old mind. In fact, enjoy the wonder of how your children think at every age, from one to twenty-five. Remember, listening involves more than the ears. It involves close observation as well.
- Set age-appropriate boundaries for their safety. Recognize that those boundaries will change as your children mature. In fact, as your children mature those boundaries often become more like “agreements” shared in mutual respect, especially as they move into and through late adolescence. Let them experience an age appropriate increased in autonomy as they mature.
- Provide them with healthy physical affection and emotional support. Take a page out of the NBA playbook and give your children the hugs, high fives, and fist bumps they need. Go a step further and give them the emotional support they need to mature and learn to regulate their emotions.
- Acknowledge their efforts, even if the final product is not what you had imagined. (See My Mom Kept That…Art? to learn more.)
- Let them experience the consequences of their behavior, the positive consequences of hard work and positive behavior as well as the negative consequences of negative behaviors. Don’t rescue them.
Providing your children with supportive parenting with the practices above will nurture healthy children. It may even bake that emotional health right into their DNA.