Sins of the Father

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Is abuse hereditary?

WebMD Feature

Sept. 11, 2000 -- If you struck up a conversation with Harold Atkins in the deli of the suburban San Francisco supermarket where he works, he might show you pictures of his new baby boy, or his two other young sons, ages 5 and 7. He might tell you how his grandmother taught him to cook and encouraged him to enroll in culinary arts classes when he was a teenager.

You'd never guess that this polite 24-year-old was only 15 months out of San Quentin Prison after serving nearly five years for attempted murder. He shot a man during a fight that followed a bout of heavy drinking. His violent past might make more sense once you learned of his hard-drinking father, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison when Atkins was only 1 year old.

Although he didn't grow up with his father and was raised instead by his grandmother, Atkins fears that he inherited his father's penchant for violence and that he may pass on this violent tendency to his sons. His older boy has flashes of temper that remind Atkins of himself as a youth, and also of his father.

"He had a bad temper, and I had a bad temper," Atkins says. "We used violence, we lashed out at things. I was just like him." Today, father and son write occasional letters to each other, but Atkins can't visit his dad in prison while he is on parole.

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."

While a supportive, safe, and loving environment is important, sometimes it isn't enough. Some researchers recommend the use of "calming" drugs like Prozac and Zoloft for children who are highly aggressive. Others, like Siever, caution that while drugs may sometimes help, they "are not a panacea." Many researchers say the most effective solution may be early intervention and "chronic care" -- ongoing counseling for both the parents and the child, regular monitoring of the child's schoolwork and activities, and, since anti-social kids tend to attract each other, close attention to a child's choice of friends.

While Atkins still worries about his older son's angry outbursts, he is pleased that -- unlike his own experiences -- his boy is getting real help. School counselors have done testing to determine if he has any learning disabilities, but so far they have not made any diagnosis. While his sons live with their mother 15 miles away, Atkins spends some time with them every day and attends his eldest's Pop Warner football games.

Such focused attention and assistance is just what the boy needs, researchers say, and should continue through adolescence. It will, if Atkins has anything to say about it.

He's worked hard to improve his own behavior and to be there for his boys. And that, he hopes, will help them break the cycle of violence -- whatever their genetic propensity.

Jim Dawson has been a newspaper science writer for twenty years and is now the senior news editor for Physics Today magazine in Washington, D.C.

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