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Gene Responsible for Harsh Behaviors During Economic Downturns

Update Date: Aug 06, 2013 10:59 AM EDT

During bleak economic times, almost everyone starts to feel the financial pressures that add unwanted stress. These pressures lead people to make decisions, such as moving back home or taking up an extra part time job, that will very much affect their lives for months to years. Although harsh economic times affect everyone, parents tend to be one of groups that gets hit the hardest. Parents must deal with the pressures of providing for their family, which ranges from providing the necessities to joyful experiences, such as trips. These pressures might overwhelm some parents and lead to harsher home environments. According to a new study, a gene might be responsible for parents' abusive actions toward their children during hard times.

In this study, researchers focused on the 'orchid/dandelion gene,' scientifically known as the DRD2 Taq1A gene. The DRD2 Taq1A gene is responsible for controlling dopamine, which is a hormone located in the brain that helps regulate behaviors. This gene has been discovered to have a sensitive nature in that it reacts differently depending on the environment. Researchers have found that nearly 50 percent of the population has this gene.

For this study, Garfinkel's team looked at mothers who were already enrolled in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. From this study, there were about 5,000 children born throughout 20 cities from 1998 to 2000. 75 percent of the mothers were unmarried at the time of their children's birth. The researchers measured "harsh parenting" through interviews when children were at the ages of one, three, five and nine. The researchers discovered that a 10 percent spike in the unemployment rate resulted in a 16 percent increase in harsher maternal parenting.

"In bad environments, people with this gene are more likely to do impulsive, aggressive things," researcher and co-author of the study, Irwin Garfinkel from Columbia University, said according to HealthDay. "If you remember the papers back in 2008, newspapers said we were on the way to a great depression and policy makers were scared. It was during that period that harsh parenting increased the most."

Since the researchers were aware of the nature of the gene, they were somewhat surprised to find that people's parenting styles can change so dramatically depending on the time. According to researchers, the gene was dubbed the "orchid/dandelion" gene because the gene shares similar characteristics with these two flowers. In terms of orchids, they need a positive and good environment to thrive. People with this gene tend to thrive under happy conditions. For the dandelions part, these flowers are stoic and highly capable of withstanding harsh conditions. Based from this fact, people with the gene should ideally be able to maintain a strong outlook during hard times. Even though people with this gene manage to survive harsh times, they could not avoid turning to tougher parenting skills.

"The same gene that makes you look vulnerable in a bad situation makes you do better in a good environment. In a good environment, an orchid flourishes and is beautiful," Garfinkel said. "But some of us, we're dandelions - we might not thrive, but we can survive in all environments."

Researchers believe that the important part is to not dwell on the fact that you might have the gene, but rather, to focus on your parenting skills. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

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