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See Inside November/December 2011

On the Trail of the Orchid Child

One genetic variant leads to the best and worst outcomes in kids

Withering or Thriving
As reported in the April Psychological Science, the genetic and behavioral data are consistent with the orchid child model of susceptibility. That is, certain variations in the children’s CHRM2 gene appear to interact with parental negligence to produce the most undesirable teenage behavior. But the nature of that interaction is what is most important: the genetic variant that combined with lousy parenting to produce the worst aggression and delinquency also combined with the most attentive parenting to produce the best teenage outcomes. Put another way, the kids who ran the highest risk of developing bad behaviors in bad homes were least likely to struggle when living in healthy, nurturing homes.

Although the scientists studied parental monitoring or awareness, this measure is most likely a proxy for a teenager’s environment more generally. That is, adolescents who scored low on parental involvement are probably more likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods and to hang out with friends who tend to get into trouble. Some kids—the dandelion children—might do okay in such a world, but these stresses may be enough to tank the genetically sensitive orchid children.

If CHRM2 does turn out to be an orchid child gene, some earlier findings might now begin to make sense. For example, the gene has also been linked to serious depression in some studies and to cognitive ability in others. But the gene does not appear to code for these outcomes directly, nor do all these outcomes necessarily show up in all genetically at-risk teenagers. Indeed, CHRM2 may not be a gene “for” anything—other than the tendency to follow life’s fortunes or misfortunes.

This article was originally published with the title "We're Only Human: On the Trail of the Orchid Child."

 

(Further Reading)
  • Biological Sensitivity to Context, Vol. 1: An Evolutionary-Developmental Theory of the Origins and Functions of Stress Reactivity. W. Thomas Boyce and Bruce J. Ellis in Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 17, No. 2, pages 271–301; June 2005.
  • CHRM2, Parental Monitoring, and Adolescent Externalizing Behavior: Evidence for Gene-Environment Interaction. Danielle M. Dick et al. in Psychological Science, Vol. 22, No. 4, pages 481–489; April 2011.
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