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Associations between parenting and child outcomes are often interpreted as reflecting causal, social influences. However, such associations may be confounded by genes common to children and their biological parents. To the extent that these shared genes influence behaviours in both generations, a passive genetic mechanism may explain links between them. Here we aim to quantify the relative importance of passive genetic v. social mechanisms in the intergenerational association between parent–offspring relationship quality and offspring internalizing problems in adolescence.
We used a Children-of-Twins (CoT) design with data from the parent-based Twin and Offspring Study of Sweden (TOSS) sample [909 adult twin pairs and their offspring; offspring mean age 15.75 (2.42) years], and the child-based Swedish Twin Study of CHild and Adolescent Development (TCHAD) sample [1120 adolescent twin pairs; mean age 13.67 (0.47) years]. A composite of parent-report measures (closeness, conflict, disagreements, expressions of affection) indexed parent–offspring relationship quality in TOSS, and offspring self-reported internalizing symptoms were assessed using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) in both samples.
A social transmission mechanism explained the intergenerational association [r = 0.21 (0.16–0.25)] in our best-fitting model. A passive genetic transmission pathway was not found to be significant, indicating that parental genetic influences on parent–offspring relationship quality and offspring genetic influences on their internalizing problems were non-overlapping.
These results indicate that this intergenerational association is a product of social interactions between children and parents, within which bidirectional effects are highly plausible. Results from genetically informative studies of parenting-related effects should be used to help refine early parenting interventions aimed at reducing risk for psychopathology.
Parental depressive symptoms are associated with emotional and behavioural problems in offspring. However, genetically informative studies are needed to distinguish potential causal effects from genetic confounds, and longitudinal studies are required to distinguish parent-to-child effects from child-to-parent effects.
We conducted cross-sectional analyses on a sample of Swedish twins and their adolescent offspring (n = 876 twin families), and longitudinal analyses on a US sample of children adopted at birth, their adoptive parents, and their birth mothers (n = 361 adoptive families). Depressive symptoms were measured in parents, and externalizing and internalizing problems measured in offspring. Structural equation models were fitted to the data.
Results of model fitting suggest that associations between parental depressive symptoms and offspring internalizing and externalizing problems remain after accounting for genes shared between parent and child. Genetic transmission was not evident in the twin study but was evident in the adoption study. In the longitudinal adoption study child-to-parent effects were evident.
We interpret the results as demonstrating that associations between parental depressive symptoms and offspring emotional and behavioural problems are not solely attributable to shared genes, and that bidirectional effects may be present in intergenerational associations.
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