Since the human Genome project was complete in 2003, geneticists have been swamped with new genetic information. How do the genes we were born with “express” themselves -- affect our behavior and our relationships? Do genes determine our behavior or is there more going on?

The new field of epigenetics explores how environment affects the ways genes express themselves. Genes and environment are interdependent. Genes are designed to be regulated by signals from what surrounds them – from hormones in the endocrine system and neurotransmitters in the brain, some of which, in turn, are profoundly affected by our social interactions. A new sub-science of social epigenetics tries to understand how this happens.

Specific genes help inhibit aggression and anger. In small amounts, the enzyme those genes “express” produces a hair-trigger temper. If very small amounts are produced, the person may be uncontrollably prone to violence and end up in prison. If the enzyme is produced in larger amounts, the person may still get angry but recover quickly.

Family life alters the activity of genes, not only for aggression but for a vast number of other traits. For example, when children born into families with a history of violence were adopted by peaceable families, only 13% displayed violent traits as they grew up. But children were adopted into violent homes, 45% went on to become violent themselves.

How we treat our children sets levels of activity in their genes. However, every child experiences the same family in vastly different ways. As they compete for parental time and attention, children vie to be unique, which results in their being treated differently. Those unique-to-one-child aspects of family life have a huge effect on a child’s temperament, above and beyond genetic influences.

A teenager’s sense of self-worth depends almost entirely upon how he was treated as a child, and almost not at all on genetics. However, once formed, the child’s sense of self-worth becomes fixed and shapes her behavior, apart from the hapless ministrations of her parents to change that self-image.

A child’s genetic “givens” may shape how everyone treats her. An irritable, aggressive or difficult child tends to generate an in-kind response, e.g. harsh discipline, tough talk, criticism and anger -- all setting up a vicious spiral. Parenting can’t change every gene, yet what children experience every day sculpts their neural circuits.

Parent-child attachments usually fall into one of three patterns. In the best circumstances, parents who are in emotional synch with their children provide a secure base. Parents who hover or intrude and are self-preoccupied create an anxious attachment. Parents who maintain a cold emotional distance from the child create avoidant attachments.
  • About 55% of adult Americans fall into the “secure” category” in their later love relationships. They see themselves as worthy of concern, care, and affection, and view others as accessible, reliable and having good intentions towards them.
  • Some 20% are “anxious” in their love relationships. They are prone to fret that their partner won’t stay. Indeed, sometimes their apprehensive clinging and their need for reassurance drive the other partner away. They are prone to “love addiction”, obsessive preoccupation, self-conscious anxiety, and emotional dependence. This over-concern can spill over into their friendships.
  • The remaining 25% are “avoidant” in love relationships, uncomfortable being emotionally close, find it hard to trust a partner or share feelings, nervous if their partner gets emotionally intimate. They tend to suppress their own emotions, especially distressing feelings. Because they expect their partner to be emotionally untrustworthy, they find intimate relationships unpleasant.

The underlying difficulty with anxious and avoidant types comes down to rigidity. Both anxiety and avoidance may make sense in a given situation, but not if applied across the board in every circumstance. These attachment styles are not genetic givens. They are shaped during childhood.

Attachment patterns are transmitted largely through the parent-child relationship. Sometimes an anxious or avoidant child finds a secure “surrogate parent” – perhaps an older sibling, teacher or other relative who can help shift the pattern towards a secure base. Children of anxious or avoidant parents are sometimes surprisingly resilient about searching out a secure base elsewhere.

Nurturing relationships in later life can rewrite the neural attachment scripts encrypted during childhood. That’s much of psychotherapy’s work. Psychotherapy can serve as a projection screen for reliving early relationships in a temporary secure base provided by the therapist. Just as children learn how to manage their feelings in the safety of a secure base, psychotherapy can offer adults the opportunity to finish the job.

Geneticists say that depression can be “inherited” from a depressed parent. Here it’s not just the gene’s expression but the parents’ actions also at work. Children become exquisite readers of their parents’ emotions. As adults they become artful at handling interactions with depressed parents – hard-earned social intelligence.

Most children learn to distinguish one feeling from another and to grasp what has let to this feeling or that. But children who are severely neglected do not. Abused children perceive anger in faces that are neutral, ambiguous or even sad. They scan for anger more than other children. Trouble brews when these children bring this heightened sensitivity into the outside world.

Neuroscience has mapped the neural centers that fix the range through which our emotions typically swing during a given day – our emotional “thermostat”. It’s not fixed at birth. Our brain’s capacity for joy seems linked to the kind of care we receive as children. There seems to be a direct link between our resilience to stress and our capacity for happiness. The amount of joy in a toddler’s relationships appears critical to setting the brain pathways for happiness.

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