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Are Personality Traits Hereditary?

Blaming genes is no excuse when dealing with defiant adolescents.

In one of my previous posts, some readers commented that they disagreed with my stance that parents are the primary influence in the lives of their children. At least two commenters insisted that they are easygoing people and that the personality of their difficult children mirrored the personality of relatives related to the children. One person stated that her child was like the father, while the other stated that the child was like the father’s mother.

This reminded me of a story about two parents who returned their adopted son back to his orphanage about seven years after they had adopted him. They had adopted him when he was 1 year old. The reasoning the couple gave was that they believed the boy to be a psychopath and they had to return him for fear of their safety. In an argument with someone about this issue, I took the stance that the parents had wrongfully abandoned the boy, and the other person took the stance that they had done the right thing given that psychopathy is hereditary.

So to the question, is it hereditary? First and foremost, I am not a geneticist by any stretch of the imagination. However, due to my work as a psychotherapist, I have studied a lot of research about neuroscience and and the role of genes in human behavior. The most important takeaway is that genes do not operate in isolation (Rutter M. 2006.) Another way to put it is that there is always an interaction between the genes of a person and the person’s experience. While personalities are certainly inherited, the behavior of a child or teen is a result of how the child’s personality interacts with his or her daily experiences.

So if you identified 10 children with personality traits indicating a strong-willed character, their behaviors are not going to be consistent based on the influences of their households. You can have one strong-willed child who habitually presents a defiant attitude in one household, while you can have another strong-willed child who presents a commitment to following through with all household rules so that he can work on achieving excellence in an extracurricular activity.

A strong-willed child or teen who is habitually disrespectful in one household does not necessary mean that he or she has been abused by the parent. It could be a matter of a personality clash between the parents and child coupled with the parents not knowing how to redirect the strong will of their child. It is not uncommon for parents to raise one or two children with little or no conflict and then experience a mountain of challenges with a subsequent child. Try as they might, these parents experience what amounts to no progress with each strategy they implement.

In truth, most parenting strategies are effective in theory but the difference is the approach or context in which the parenting strategy is used. In order to parent a child who presents significant defiance towards you, you have to make adjustments in your lifestyle and expectations in order for your strategies to be effective.

For example, if I am working with two adolescents who present anger management issues, the messages I convey to both teens are the same, but my approach in conveying the messages to both teens would be tailored to each of their personality traits. This forces me to make compromises regarding my own attitude and behaviors. I would have to reevaluate which boundaries are absolutely necessary and which boundaries can be relaxed. Down the road, once rapport has been established, the less necessary boundaries can be shored up. This means that adjustments parents make with themselves for the sake of the child don’t have to be permanent.

In conclusion, heredity is not a catch-all excuse when parenting defiant children. The influence of each parent is not to be underestimated.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.

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