Strict Parenting May Hardwire Depression Into a Child’s DNA

Young Teenager Child Depression

The NIH estimates that approximately 21 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode.

The researchers found that strict parenting can affect the way the body reads DNA.

The way the body reads the children’s DNA might change as a result of strict parenting. These alterations may become ‘hard-wired’ into the DNA of children who perceive their parents to be harsh, raising their biological risk for depression in adolescence and later life.

Dr. Evelien Van Assche recently presented the work at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress in Vienna.

She elaborates on her work, “We discovered that perceived harsh parenting, with physical punishment and psychological manipulation, can introduce an additional set of instructions on how a gene is read to become hard-wired into DNA. We have some indications that these changes themselves can predispose the growing child to depression. This does not happen to the same extent if the children have had a supportive upbringing.”

The researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium chose 21 adolescents who reported good parenting (for example, supportive parents who give their children autonomy) and compared them to 23 adolescents who reported harsh parenting (for example, manipulative behavior, physical punishment, excessive strictness). All of the adolescents were between the ages of 12 and 16, with a mean age of 14 for both groups. Both groups included 11 adolescents who were males, meaning that the two groups were equal in terms of age and gender distribution. Many of those who had been subjected to harsh parenting displayed early, subclinical signs of depression.

The researchers then analyzed the range of methylation at over 450,000 places in each subject’s DNA and discovered that it was significantly increased in those who experienced a harsh upbringing. Methylation is a natural process in which a small chemical molecule is added to the DNA, altering the way the instructions encoded in your DNA are read: for example, methylation may increase or reduce the amount of an enzyme produced by a gene. Increased methylation variation has been linked to depression.

Evelien Van Assche said “We based our approach on prior research with identical twins. Two independent groups found that the twin diagnosed with major depression also had a higher range of DNA methylation for the majority of these hundreds of thousands of data points, as compared to the healthy twin.”

Dr. Van Assche (now working at the University of Munster, Germany) continued, “The DNA remains the same, but these additional chemical groups affect how the instructions from the DNA are read. Those who reported harsher parenting showed a tendency towards depression, and we believe that this tendency has been baked into their DNA through increased variation in methylation. We are now seeing if we can close the loop by linking it to a later diagnosis of depression and perhaps use this increased methylation variation as a marker, to give advance warning of who might be at greater risk of developing depression as a result of their upbringing.”

She adds, “In this study, we investigated the role of harsh parenting, but it’s likely that any significant stress will lead to such changes in DNA methylation; so in general, stresses in childhood may lead to a general tendency to depression in later life by altering the way your DNA is read. However, these results need to be confirmed in a larger sample.”

Commenting, Professor Christiaan Vinkers, Department of Psychiatry, Amsterdam University Medical Centre, said: “This is extremely important work to understand the mechanisms of how adverse experiences during childhood have life-long consequences for both mental health and physical health. There is a lot to gain if we can understand who is at risk, but also why there are differing effects of strict parenting.”

Reference: 35th Congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP)

Professor Vinkers was not involved in this work, this is an independent comment.

The study was funded by the KU Leuven Research Fund. 

23 Comments on "Strict Parenting May Hardwire Depression Into a Child’s DNA"

  1. What a load of rubbish.Discipline doesn’t harm a child.These so called specialists talk and spout utter rubbish.No wonder the world is all screwed up.

    • I think someone should berate you and beat the crap out of you every single day of your llife for sixteen years and see if that doesnʻt change your mind.

    • Let me be harsh with you for 18 damn years. You gonna hate me. And if a child only gets harsh treatment what you will except when it grows up? It will hate you. And you deserve it. Harsh treatment doesn’t make a child learn how to treat rightfully others! Lead by example how a child should treat others. When an adult makes a mistake you are (hopefully) not going to beat your wife, right? So why do that to a child? The child will primarily learn to fear you and not from them mistakes it did. The primary focus should be on the mistakes and not on YOU to properly educate a child. Violence leads to violence later in life!

  2. @Les Coomber this article laid out evidence that strict parenting increases risk of depression, and a mechanism thru which it can occur. If you doubt this, what evidence do you have that this is not the case? And no, your favorite religious book is not adequate.

  3. Having lived in a permissive area (with a large number of therapists) for many years I am very sceptical.

  4. @Les Coomber “Spare the rod and spoil the child” eh? So PTSD isn’t real either is it? Imagine a soldier suffering from PTSD. Now imagine a child that is physically and mentally abused by a parent. Not only is that child’s enemy twice as big as them, that child is owned by their enemy and they have no weapons or army of fellow soldiers to support them in battle. And instead of a 1-4 year tour of duty they are indentured for a minimum of 18 years. Perspective.

  5. Personally I think “disciplining a child doesn’t harm them” is the take that would require some kind of proof, Les. Prove that when you hurt your child physically or emotionally, they are magically not harmed.

  6. As a scientist myself, I think they have to increase the “n” (number of subjects in study) before reaching that conclusion. It’s possible grades of DNA methylation can be ligated to stress more than to “strict parents”. Also, it’s perspective: i.e., I would never say my childhood was harsh, but other people may think my parents were very strict. That is a very subjective parameter to consider in an investigation, and it could deliver biased data.

  7. Derrick Reriani | November 21, 2022 at 3:55 am | Reply

    That’s very true, it can tamper with self-confident

  8. As a 62 year old survivor of extreme physical and emotional abuse who was removed from the environment at 14 years of age, this explains why a lifetime of therapy and antidepressants have been ineffective.

  9. While I can agree that discipline may be a factor of depression I will point out that it pails in comparison to many many other things that happen during the course of one’s life. Rape, insest, bullying, just being a bitch, are but a few of so so many

  10. Some people need to learn the difference between discipline and punishment. They are not the same. Discipline is repeating a good or acceptable way over and over. You don’t need to be harshly punished or abused in order to achieve this.

    • With my limited knowledge and experience, I’d say I agree.
      There’s a line – however broad or fine that may be – that distinguishes between disciplinary and punitive parenting.
      Too much strictness, as well as a complete lack thereof (full autonomy, no intervention) often don’t aid children’s mental development the best.
      Of course, it is pretty subjective in relation to how each child interprets their experiences with their parents.

  11. Inconvenient truth | November 23, 2022 at 7:19 am | Reply

    Imagine what black people in America are overcoming in regards to what their DNA has been through from generations of brutal physical treatment.

  12. There is a difference between discipline and abuse!

  13. Seems like a subjective study with subjective results. I was raised in an authoritative and loving home by grandparents, then sent away to boarding school because I didn’t have my real father, and my mother could barely put two and two together. I was taught to be respectful and to engage politely in conversation with adults, and if I didn’t have anything nice to say to keep my mouth shut. I’m glad I was raised the way I was raised. I turned out just fine. Confident, empathetic, happy, and hardworking. That was yesterday. Today is much different. Today kids are given phones and forming opinions at a much younger age than ever before without any real world experience. This empowerment breeds a naive cynicism influenced by viral videos, memes, and tik tok garbage, with an ignorant and arrogant outcome. The parents become burnt out and disgruntled and the kids are left feeling judged and misunderstood. Both are at fault and there is a failure or struggle to launch for the kid. There is nothing wrong with structure and discipline instilled from a young age backed by love and attention. The focus will come. Too many kids can’t focus because of too much screen time, poor nutrition, and angry parents trying to make up for lack of structure. There have been plenty of studies from many countries that highlight the negative longterm effects of permissive parenting. Yet, too authoritative and the results can be just as negative. Parenting needs to strike a balance, but letting today’s child not own their actions or be held accountable is not helping. Everytime is see news of a young person or group of kids getting arrested or news of assaulting the elderly I always say the same thing. Where are the parents. Won’t be my child because I’ve given them structure and love. But they know what lines not to cross because I can passionately make those consequences and repercussions known to them. Raising kids is not one size fits all. But common sense is universal.

  14. It seems most have forgotten about the element of autonomy that is also mentioned. This helps differentiate between parental rules and parental abuse. I suggest you re-read the article; autonomy makes a world of difference in results.

  15. As far as I can tell, there is no empirical validation of “good parenting” vs bad, only the perception of the child. I believe this could be real, but I see nothing here that looks like science…

  16. I had puppy dog eyes looking at my dad for the belt speachless to spank my cousins with it. I wanted to spank them with the belt after they tore up my grandma’s house. Too this day I can’t stand my cousin’s unexceptional behavior!Then they locked my sister in the bathroom at grandma’s. My aunt didn’t believe me. My aunt and uncle on my dads side were the worst parents ever!No discipline whatsoever. After that I dreaded going to my grandparents house!

  17. I think the term strict and abusive are very different terms. Strict implies teaching accountability for your words and actions. Abuse is not that. I think the title of the article is deceiving.

  18. What they found is correlation, not causing. Alternative explanation could be that common factors (first of all genetical ones but not exclusively so) predefine both the methylation levels measured and harsh parenting reported.
    Moral message brought that way does not only corrupt the science, it is bad by itself. It supposes that parental abuse cannot be condemned for what it is, parental abuse, instead people have to look for “scientific” proofs that it is bad.
    Imagine you are beaten by someone in the street. Not so much as to need medical help. Did you suffer any harm other than the evident one of being beaten? I doubt. Would you like having people involved in judgement about permanent, medical, measurable etc. harm you suffered and, in case none is found, saying you it’s OK to be beaten?

  19. The title of this article should say “abusive” not “strict.” Parents can most certainly be strict without being physically or mentally harmful to their children. I don’t doubt the content of the article is correct, but the title is misleading.

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