Sins of the Father (cont.)

While locked up, Atkins got sober, gained control of his volatile temper, and enrolled in college classes with the goal of becoming a counselor for young men like himself. But he knows he is only one drink, one outburst of temper away from landing in jail again. Did Atkins inherit his dad's quick temper, violent impulses, and alcoholism? Or are their similarities the result of both growing up in poor, fragmented families in rough neighborhoods, where violence and drinking were commonplace? And, even more worrisome, are his young boys destined to grow up "just like" their father?

While not all sons of chronically violent fathers become violent themselves, they are at higher risk for substance abuse and violence, according to many experts who study the dynamics of abusive, anti-social families.

"The association is very strong," says Ralph Tarter, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical science and director for the Center for Education and Drug Abuse Research at the University of Pittsburgh. "The son of a drug- or alcohol-abusing father has a four to seven times greater chance [than the average child] of having the same problems, even if the son is adopted away at a very young age." Tartar presented research that included this observation at the May 2000 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.

For many years, scientists have hedged their bets, at least publicly, when talking about how genetic and environmental factors contribute to behavior. While the complex interplay between genes, behavior, and environment is still not well understood, some researchers are not shy about hypothesizing a strong genetic component.

"There must be 100 studies showing a genetic basis for abusive personalities and for many of these disorders," says Tarter. "But that isn't to say that if you have the genes you get the problems. If you have a protective environment, you may not."

William Iacono, PhD, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota, agrees. "There is a genetic component that underlies the propensity to be violent," he says. "Not a violence gene, but a general predisposition to respond with negative emotions, to be impulsive and not learn the appropriate social response in certain circumstances."

Michael Siever, a San Francisco psychologist who specializes in treating people with addictions, says it is difficult to tease out which behaviors are learned from the environment and which are genetic tendencies, but that it really doesn't matter in trying to break the generational chain. The key, he says, is early intervention. "It is much easier to teach a 4-year-old than a 24-year-old," he says. "You have to look at family dynamics, the schools, the community, the neighborhood. Is it an environment of violence?"

Ken Winters, PhD, a University of Minnesota psychologist, says studies show that many children who are at risk of having problems with substance abuse and violence can be spotted when they are very young. He estimates the number of children who show serious aggressive traits at somewhere between 3% and 10%. "They are often disruptive, aggressive kids in kindergarten," he says. "We've followed these disruptive kids over time and found that they accelerate these behaviors as they get older. These things emerge early."


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