Positive Parenting defeats bad genes

Positive Parenting defeats bad genes

Good life may offset bad genes

UGA substance use study

By Lee Shearer | lee.shearer@onlineathens.com | Story updated at 11:59 pm on 2/22/2009

Even people with a gene that predisposes them to alcoholism or drug abuse are more likely to say “no” if they were raised by good parents, University of Georgia researchers have found.

Working with more than 253 black families in rural Georgia, the researchers followed youngsters over four years – from 11 to 14 years old.

About 40 percent had a gene that made them at risk for substance abuse, a gene connected to risk-taking.

But when researchers took parenting into account, the genetic effect vanished.

The study shows that both environment – parenting, in this case – and genetics play a role in health problems, said Steven Beach, a psychology professor and director of UGA’s Institute for Behavioral Research.

Beach worked with UGA family and consumer sciences professor Gene Brody and Robert Philibert, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa. Their findings were published this month in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Many studies have followed children over time to see how identified genetic risk factors influence their health and behavior. But the UGA scientists say theirs is the first study to follow youngsters over time to see how their environment influences a genetic risk factor.

Overall, 21 percent of the children in the UGA study had smoked cigarettes and 42 percent had tried alcohol by age 14. Five percent had drunk heavily, and 5 percent had used marijuana – and drug and alcohol use was much higher for kids with the gene than for kids without it.

In families without much good parenting, kids with the negative gene were three times as likely to use alcohol or drugs than those who did not have the gene, the researchers found.

But children with the gene – who also had engaged, supportive parents – were no more likely than kids who didn’t have the gene to drink or use drugs, the researchers found.

The researchers judged parenting based on factors such as how much time parents spent with children, communicating with them and helping them with homework.

People often uses phrases like “the gene for alcoholism,” or the gene for this or that kind of cancer. But reality is much more complex, Beach said.

All health problems likely are the result of both complex genetic and environmental influences, he said.

“There are a lot of genes that have a little effect, and we all have some of them,” Beach said. “The bigger story is finding the things that help us deal with the risk that we have.”

People can’t switch out their genes, but people can change environmental factors such as parenting, Beach said.

“We’re interested in the part of it that we can do something about,” he said. “In some ways, it’s a confirmation of what people have been thinking for a long time – the parenting connection is really important.”

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Monday, February 23, 2009