The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Not in Their Genes

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The distinctive propensity of adolescents from broken homes to become juvenile delinquents is well known. This propensity, many have concluded, manifests one of the harmful effects of parental divorce. But some have offered another explanation: What if the linkage between parental divorce and adolescent delinquency reflects genetic inheritance, not lived experience? What if children inherit from divorce-prone parents certain genes that predispose them toward juvenile crime?

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University test this genetic explanation of the linkage between parental divorce and adolescent delinquency. They begin their research fully aware that “parental divorce is a consistent (if modest) predictor of delinquency and other externalizing behaviors during childhood and adolescence,” noting further that “despite the increased social acceptability and prevalence of divorce in recent decades (and thus the sheer number of exposed children), the differences in delinquency between youth from intact and divorced families have not decreased (and indeed, appear to have increased).” Yet further inquiry seems warranted because, “in spite of the robust nature of this association” between parental divorce and adolescent delinquency, “relatively little is known” about what creates this association. In particular, while the researchers acknowledge that many social scientists believe that “the experience of parental divorce acts to disrupt the child’s behavior,” the researchers see “genetic mediation” as another “possible” explanation, one that has not yet been empirically investigated.

To assess these two competing explanations of the statistical association in view, the researchers carefully parse data collected from 610 adoptive and biological families. The Minnesota and Michigan scholars convincingly reason “that if genes common to parent and child mediate this association [between parental divorce and adolescent delinquency], non-adopted youth should manifest increased delinquency in the presence of parental divorce even if the divorce preceded their birth (i.e., was from a prior parental relationship). However, should the association be environmental in origin, adolescents should manifest increased delinquency only in response to divorce exposure, and this association should not vary by adoption status.”

The statistical pattern that emerges from the researchers’ analysis is clear: “[parental] divorces during the adolescent’s lifetime were associated with increased delinquency in both ADOP[ted] and BIO[logical-family] youth [p<0.05] . . . while divorces preceding the birth of the adolescent (i.e., those from prior parental relationships) were not.”

The implication is unmistakable: “It is the actual experience of parental divorce (and remarriage), and not common genes, that drives the association between divorce and adolescent delinquency.” In other words, it is the chosen behavior of parental divorce that turns teens into vandals and tire-slashers, not immutable laws of genetics.

(S. Alexandra Burt, “Parental Divorce and Adolescent Delinquency: Ruling Out the Impact of Common Genes,”Developmental Psychology 44.6 [November 2008]: 1667–68, parenthetical citations omitted from quotations.)