The University of Leuven study suggests that authoritarian parenting may literally change the way kids’ DNA is read and have long-term on their mental health.
Authoritarian parenting, or an extremely strict parenting style focused on obedience and discipline, just tallied another strike against it. A new study from the University of Leuven suggests that the strict parenting style changes the “hard-wiring” of a child’s brain and can lead to depression and other mental illness as an adolescent and adult.
“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,” explained lead author Dr. Evelien Van Assche in a press release. “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 small study compared 21 adolescents with self-described “good parenting,” which includes support and child autonomy, and 23 adolescents who reported “harsh parenting,” which includes things like manipulative behavior. All respondents were between the ages of 12-16.
By using genome mapping, researchers discovered that the 23 adolescents who reported stricter parents had increased variation in methylation, which is the key to turning certain genes on and off. The methylation range was much higher in those who experienced stricter parenting, which suggests authoritarian parenting could be behind an increased risk of depression and other mental illnesses.
“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 noted.
“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,” explained Dr. Van Assche.
“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,” Dr. Van Assche concluded.
The researchers do note that stress in general could lead to higher levels of methylation, and that larger studies need to be conducted in order to find the exact link: “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”.
Still, this work could lead to a new way to screen for mental illness as depression and anxiety rates, particularly in kids and adolescents, continues to skyrocket.