Background: A critical issue in devising effective interventions for the treatment of children’s behavioral and emotional problems identifying genuine family environmental factors that place children at risk. In most twin and family studies, environmental factors are confounded with both direct genetic risk from parents and the indirect effect of genes influencing parents’ ability to provide an optimal rearing environment. The present study was undertaken to determine whether parental psychopathology, specifically parental antisocial behavior (ASP), is a genuine environmental risk factor for juvenile conduct disturbance, depression and hyperactivity, or whether the association between parental ASP and children’s behavioral and emotional problems can be explained as a secondary consequence of the intergenerational transmission of genetic factors.
Methods: An extended children of twins design comprised of data collected on 2,674 adult female and male twins, their spouses, and 2,454 of their children was used to test whether genetic and/or family environmental factors best accounted for the association between parental antisocial behavior and children’s behavioral problems. An age-matched sample of 2,826 juvenile twin pairs from the Virginia Twin Study of Adolescent Behavioral Development was also included to examine developmental differences in gene expression by partitioning child-specific transmissible effects from those effects that persist into adulthood. The fit of alternative models was evaluated using the statistical program Mx.
Results: We found distinct patterns of transmission between parental antisocial behavior and juvenile conduct, depression and hyperactivity. Genetic and family environmental factors accounted for the resemblance between parents’ ASP and children’s conduct disturbance. Family environmental factors alone explained the association between child depression and parental ASP, and the impact of parental ASP on hyperactivity was entirely genetic.
Conclusions: These findings underscore differences in the contribution of genetic and environmental factors on the patterns of association between parental antisocial behavior and juvenile psychopathology, having important clinical implications for the prevention and amelioration of child behavioral and emotional problems.