VIENNA, Austria — Kids with strict parents are more likely to develop depression, according to new research. University of Leuven researchers say an authoritarian style changes the wiring of a kid’s brain, making them more likely to develop mental health issues.
“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,” explains lead author Dr. Evelien Van Assche in a media release.
The discovery could lead to a screening program to identify vulnerable individuals. Estimates show that roughly one in 10 Americans deals with depression. The findings go against the old proverb “spare the rod, spoil the child,” meaning an undisciplined child will never learn obedience and good manners.
The study was based on 23 Belgian boys and girls between 12 and 16 who reported that their parents are harsh — which includes manipulative behavior, physical punishment, or excessive strictness. The team compared them to a similar number of peers matched by age and sex who said their parents were supportive and gave them autonomy.
Does strict parenting really change your child’s DNA?
Genome mapping showed the former group had increased variation in “methylation,” which is linked with depression. Many already showed initial, subclinical signs. Methylation is a normal process which occurs when a small chemical molecule is added to DNA, changing the way instructions are read. For example, it may increase or decrease the amount of an enzyme produced by a gene.
“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,” says Dr. Van Assche.
The Leuven University team measured methylation range at over 450,000 places in the DNA of each child. It was much higher in those who reported a harsh upbringing.
“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,” adds Dr. Van Assche, who is now working at the University of Munster.
“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.”
There’s mounting evidence that strict parenting could harm a child
Previous research has linked strict parenting to depression, anxiety, and aggression among children. Their offspring struggle to form emotional relationships when they get older and also have trouble with educational attainment, scientists claim.
“This is extremely important work to understand the mechanisms 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,” says Professor Christiaan Vinkers from Amsterdam University Medical Center.
“We show that increased variability in DNA methylation is already present in adolescents experiencing adverse parenting and subclinical depressive symptoms, consistent with previous results. These findings can indicate that environmental stress can influence DNA methylation regulatory mechanisms which could lead to a higher overall variability for the chronic stress-exposed group. The results fit in the growing evidence that chronic adversity, such as perceived bad parenting, is associated with DNA methylation alterations,” the researchers conclude in their presentation at the 35th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology annual conference.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.