Children environment genes Parents Teenagers

From whence kids’ difficult genes?

September 14, 2015


“My daughter [thirteen year old Chloe] is just like her father and her grandmother. She has their difficult, temperamental genes!”

Chloe’s mum was confident that she’d nailed the source of her daughter’s volatile behaviour.


I had to smile. I’ve thought and said similarly about my children with reference to their troublesome traits. Many of the mums that I see in my practice have voiced comparable sentiments, eyes rolling, heads slowly moving from side to side: “Jusssttt like his/her father.”

The truth is that Chloe certainly does have her father’s genes; but only fifty per cent of them. She gets the rest from her mum. It’s easy to attribute particular behaviours to particular parental genes, but it’s a fallacy.

Here are 2 reasons why.

One problem with the “difficult behaviour gene” is that there isn’t such a thing.

Even if a ‘cranky gene’ was ever discovered (and that’s highly unlikely):

1. It would be impossible to tell which gene or groups of genes cause particular behaviours. Genes and groups of genes are switched on and off with environmental experiences. In other words, it’s impossible to tell whether cranky behaviour is genetic or learned. Even clinically diagnosable behaviours that we like to think of as purely genetic, are influenced by environmental factors, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

2. If both parents are quite volatile, the mixing of male and female genes at conception would make it difficult to determine which parent bestowed the grouchy DNA gift. This is because when an egg cell is fertilised with a sperm cell, the two cells, male and female, go through a random criss-crossing process of male and female genetic material. The genes stay the same in general (from mum and dad and their parents and theirs again, all the way down the inheritance line) but at conception the criss-cross process ensures that they are patched together in a unique way.

One way to think about this is to imagine a jeweller making a necklace of green beads by choosing an even number of random beads from a male jar and a female jar. Once the beads are strung together on the same thread it’s difficult to determine which jar contained the grumpy bead.

So, there are a few important reasons why Chloe’s mum is misled: there’s no one gene or group of genes for bad-tempered behaviour, and environmental influences on behaviour cannot be sifted out from the genetic possibilities. Furthermore, the random patchwork of genes at conception makes it impossible to say much about a parent’s genetic contribution to temper tantrums.

In my experience though, like Chloe’s mum, women often tend to assign their children’s difficult behaviours to their husbands’ side of the family.

Also in my experience is the observation that husbands seldom do the same with their wives. They tend to listen to their wives’ wisdom, somewhat bemused, but they usually remain silent. One can draw one’s own conclusions for this ‘hubby-diplomacy’.

Names, locales, people and incidents have been fictitiously created by the author. Any resemblance to actual people, places or individuals is completely coincidental.

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