Genes, Stress, and Behavior – Is Your Child an Orchid or a Dandelion?

Picture a group of children coming to the school for the first time in their life. In this group you will always notice that some children tend to spend the day moping and sulking in a corner of the classroom while other children clearly enjoy the new experience. Why this behavioral difference is so great? After all, being away from home for the first time and spending a day in the midst of strangers would be equally stressful for any child. How can one kid be so resilient while his peer so sensitive? Is it nurture, or does Mother Nature have a hand in this?

Scientists believe that sensitivity and resilience to stress is determined by genes. The presence or the absence of a specific gene variant makes a child emotionally delicate (like the fragile orchid that needs a lot of TLC to thrive) or resilient (like the robust dandelion that flowers even in the harshest of environments). However, scientists hasten to add that nurture can triumph over genes and undo some of their undesirable effects.

How Do Genes Influence Response to Stress?

A recent study has nailed down the reason behind hypersensitivity to the environment and vulnerability to stress in kids to the activity of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene NR3C1. The promoter region of this gene controls the activity of the gene and determines how many glucocorticoid receptors will be produced. The glucocorticoid receptor binds to the stress hormone cortisol and enables it to communicate with the cells in the body. This activity determines how an individual responds to stress.

According to the findings of another study carried out on children aged between 11 and 14 years, those who have been mistreated during their childhood have reduced expression of the NR3C1 gene. This indicates there is less production of glucocorticoid receptors in their brains.

We need cortisol to perform. During times of stress, secretion of cortisol makes us alert to the environment. But excess secretion of cortisol causes us to become anxious and panic, which lead to stress and may cause a drop in performance. The higher the number of glucocorticoid receptors in the body, the larger the amount of cortisol that gets docked. So you can tolerate more stress without feeling “stressed.”

But when individuals have a condition where the NR3C1 gene produces less glucocorticoid receptors, more cortisol hormones slosh around in their blood. The higher the level of cortisol in your blood, the more vulnerable you are to the effects of stress.

How Does Early-Life Stress Alter Gene Expression?

There have also been studies on how stress during the early years of development can alter the genetic makeup of an individual, and whether that goes on to influence how he reacts to stress.

Scientific interest in this matter was fuelled by a belief that children who have been subjected to physical and emotional abuse during their developmental years are at a higher risk of developing substance abuse disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, and anti-social behavior. This is not a surprising development considering that individuals who suffer from childhood trauma tend to grow up believing that the world is a dangerous and unfriendly place. So they tend to respond to stressful situations as someone would react to a threat—anxiously and aggressively.

Adverse life conditions and/or abuse suffered during childhood may lead to modifications of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene expression. Alterations in the expression of this gene is believed to be the principal cause underlying the association between childhood trauma, reactivity to stress, and risk for developing psychopathological tendencies. Childhood traumatic events include maternal neglect, separation from the mother, loss of one or both parents, and physical and/or mental abuse.

Incidentally, scientists have also noted similar epigenetic changes in the GR gene in rodents that did not receive maternal care during infancy. This gene is sensitive and in infants, it can be affected even by pre- and antenatal maternal anxiety and depression.

An “Orchid” Child Can Blossom into a “Dandelion” Child

The orchid is a delicate beautiful plant. Given the right growing conditions, the orchid sports beautiful blooms. The “orchid” child too, can grow up into a human being with exemplary moral and mental strength if he is provided with a loving, caring, and supportive environment. Such environment is also believed to diminish the chances of an “orchid” child developing psychopathological disorders later in life.

It is this belief that led to the development of the Fast Track program in the U.S. The Fast Track program is an initiative by university researchers to monitor high-risk children in schools and across communities and initiate timely interventional measures to help them learn how to deal with stress.

A landmark study was carried out on about 980 kindergartners with behavioral problems, hypersensitivity to the environment, and vulnerability to stress. They were put through a 10-year intervention program where they learned social skills and coping mechanisms. Their parents were made to undergo behavior-management training programs. Regular home visits and peer coaching sessions were also conducted during this time period.

It was eventually found that those individuals who went through the interventional program reported lower instances of violent criminal behavior and drug-crime convictions and higher well-being index later in life than those “orchid” children who did not go through the program. The study also indicates that the success rate of the intervention program increases the earlier an individual with behavioral problems comes under its aegis.

The above-mentioned findings clearly prove the case for early intervention programs for high-risk children. This is for the authorities to take note of, but parents, teachers, school counselors, and psychologists should also ensure that they do not write off the “orchid” children. Children not only need tender, loving care to thrive but also guidance and support to build their confidence levels, learn to follow their dreams, and have the courage of conviction to stick to their beliefs and ideals.

When an “orchid” blossoms into a “dandelion,” you have that rare person who is sensitive, artistic, and creative whilst also being strong and resilient.


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Image via Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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