Providing the Right Environment for Your Family Tree – Self-Regulation and Heredity

We recently received an interesting request for information from a Home Visitor in Nova Scotia. A parent asked a very good question; she wanted to know what the research says about the link between self-regulation and heredity. Home Visitors are often asked these kinds of “nature vs. nurture” questions. When parents suffer from emotional regulation challenges, they are often concerned about how this will impact their child. The big answer to the question of whether it is heredity or environment is clear: BOTH will play a large role in who their child ultimately becomes. Today we will spend some time looking into a bit of the related research. Of course, as always, we will also provide information regarding how the Growing Great Kids curriculum provides guidance for parents as they work to support self-regulation in their child.

It is easy to see a family resemblance when we look at key aspects of our personalities. However, knowing how much of this is genetic and how much is because of how our families raised us remains a challenge. So, let’s first examine what science tells us about the physical areas of the brain that process emotion, the corticolimbic system. This includes theamygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

A recent study used brain scans to look at several healthy families, analyzing the size of these parts of their brain in both the children and their parents (Yamagata, et al., 2016). What they found by this careful analysis was that this brain circuitry is more likely to be passed down from mothers than from fathers. It also appeared that this part of the brain was more similar in mothers and daughters, than it was in mothers and sons, or fathers and either their sons or daughters (Yamagata, et al., 2016). This is consistent with a growing body of research indicating that mood disorders, such as depression, seem to follow a mother to daughter transmission pattern (Goodman, 2007).  We know that children who have a depressed parent are 2-4 times more likely to develop a mood disorder (England & Sim, 2009). What we have not been able to conclude is why. This most recent research is the first to actually identify this same pattern in physical areas of the brain, specifically the corticolimbic system. While the Yamagata, et al. study adds insight, the researchers warn us not to oversimplify the matter, reminding us that “one cannot yet say whether the mother-daughter similarities are the result of genetic, prenatal or postnatal effects, or some combination of the three” (Cepelewicz, 2016).

A combined effect seems to be the most likely.

Recently, there has been much discussion of the idea of epigenetics. Epigenetics describes the process by which the environment interacts with our genetics to turn us into who we are. This may seem like a complicated concept to understand, but here’s an analogy that simplifies it a bit.

Think of the human life span as a very long movie. The cells (in our brain and everywhere else) would be the actors that star in the movie. DNA would be like the script for the movie, the instructions for the actors. The concept of genetics would be like screenwriting. The epigenetics, then, would be the director for the movie. Just like with the evolution of a real movie, our “script” may be written, but if our “director” chooses to add new scenes or to change the dialogue, this will alter ‘our movie for” better or worse (Educationally Entertaining, 2013).

Now let’s apply this model to the above question regarding heredity and emotional self-regulation. The child may inherit their genetic makeup (the script) from a parent who struggles with self-regulation. That child then has the potential to develop the same challenges. The epigenetic model then would tell us that it’s the environment that will determine whether the child will actually have those self-regulation problems. This is great news! By making the family environment one that supports strong self-regulation, parents can have a huge impact on the ultimate outcome for their child.

Because we know that self-regulation influences children’s social competence and life success, it’s important for us to keep in mind the type of environment that is supportive of this kind of social-emotional development. In the Growing Great Kids curriculum, our primary focus is on a secure parent-child attachment relationship. By practicing parenting behaviors that are nurturing and responsive, day after day, children will feel loved and valued and safe and secure. Parents who are a secure base for their children are wrapping them in protective layers that will support the optimal development of emotional self-regulation.

The following components of the curriculum will guide you as you support parents to provide an environment that promotes self-regulation:

  • E-Parenting Daily Do
  • Character Builders Daily Do
  • Play by Play Daily Do
  • Four Steps to Success Daily Do
  • Body Builders Daily Do
  • Brain Builders Daily Do
  • Ready for Play
  • Getting in Sync with My Baby

Growing Great Families Manual:

  • Unit 1 – Module 2 – Shaping Your Child’s Future
  • Unit 1 – Module 3 – Learning About Family Values and Strengths
  • Unit 2 – Module 1 – Protecting Your Children from Toxic Stress
  • Unit 2 – Module 4 – What Happened to My Needs When I Became a Parent
  • Unit 2 – Module 5 – Warning Signs for Stress Overload
  • Unit 2 – Module 8 – Problem Talk
  • Unit 2 – Module 9 – Growing Your Support Network
  • Unit 3 – Module 1 – Discipline and Punishment: What is the Difference?
  • Unit 3 – Module 2 – Discipline: Strategies for Growing Self-Regulation
  • Unit 3 – Module 3 – Discipline: Dial it Down Time and Spanking
  • Unit 4 – Blueprint 3 – Reconnecting Parents to their Children’s Needs During Times of Stress

GGK Prenatal Manual:

Unit 2 – Module 2 – Prenatal Attachment: Growing Bonds of Love

Unit 2 – Module 3 – Prenatal Depression in Mom’s and Dad’s is Not Uncommon

Unit 2 – Module 5 – Parenting to Grow a Resilient Child

GGK Social Emotional Modules for Each Unit from Birth to 36 months.

GGK For Preschoolers Manual:

Module 2 – Building Your E-Parenting Daily Do’s Skills

Module 8 – Cultivating Strong Self-Esteem

Module 9 – Supporting Social and Emotional Development

Module 11 – Temperaments

Module 13 – Advancing Your E-Parenting Skills

Module 20 – Discipline vs. Punishment: Internal vs. External Control

Module 22 – Disciplining with E-Parenting

Module 24 – Growing Great Traditions

Regulating emotions is a critical part of our daily life, and is important for our mental health. Whether this ability is a matter of nature or nurture is not an easy question to answer and one that researchers will be working on for quite some time to come. In reality what we do know is that parenting is a cause and effect situation. What we do as parents matters a great deal! Supporting parents in the journey to give their children their best is a big job, but in the end, it results in the kind of future we all want for generations to come.

 Works Cited

Cepelewicz, J. (2016, May 1). Like mother, like daughter: Brain structure in emotion-regulation areas and possibly the risk of mood disorders is inherited down the female line. Retrieved from Scientific American:

Educationally Entertaining. (2013, July 30). A super brief and basic explanation of epigenetics for total beginners. Retrieved from What is Epigenetics:

England, M., & Sim, L. (2009). Depression in parents, parenting, and children: Opportunities to improve identification, treatment, and prevention. National Academies Press.

Goodman, S. (2007). Depression in mothers. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 107-135.

Yamagata, B., Murayama, K., Black, J. M., Hancock, R., Mimura, M., Yang, T. T., . . . Hoeft, F. (2016, January 27). Female-specific intergenerational transmission patterns of the human corticolimbic circuitry. The Journal of Neuroscience, 1254-1260.

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