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November 1995

Genetic Questions for Environmental Studies: Differential Parenting and Psychopathology in Adolescence

Author Affiliations

From the Center for Family Research, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Washington, DC (Drs Reiss, Howe, Simmens, and Bussell); Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville (Drs Hetherington, Henderson, O'Connor, and Law); The College of Health and Human Development, Pennsylvania State University, University Park (Dr Plomin); and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Texas Tech University, Lubbock (Dr Anderson).

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1995;52(11):925-936. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1995.03950230039007

Background:  Recent genetic evidence suggests that the most important environmental influences on normal and pathologic development are those that are not shared by siblings in the same family. We sought to determine the relationship between differences in parenting styles and depressive symptoms and antisocial behavior in adolescence, and to compare the influence of these nonshared experiences with genetic influences.

Methods:  We studied 708 families with at least two same-sexed adolescent siblings who were monozygotic twins (93 families), dizygotic twins (99 families), ordinary siblings (95 families), full siblings in step families (181 families), half siblings in step families (110 families), and genetically unrelated siblings in step families (130 families). Data on parenting style were collected by questionnaire and by video recording of interaction between parents and children.

Results:  Almost 60% of variance in adolescent antisocial behavior and 37% of variance in depressive symptoms could be accounted for by conflictual and negative parental behavior directed specifically at the adolescent. In contrast, when a parent directed harsh, aggressive, explosive, and inconsistent parenting toward the sibling, we found less psychopathologic outcome in the adolescent.

Conclusions:  Parenting behavior directed specifically at each child in the family is a major correlate of symptoms in adolescents. Furthermore, harsh parental behavior directed at a sibling may have protective effects for adolescents, a phenomenon we call the "sibling barricade."

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