She’s got her mommy’s eyes, her daddy’s nose and Aunt Dana’s smile. But how about that sass, that stubbornness or that incredible selflessness? Where do those traits come from?
Obviously, kids inherit their parents’ (or extended family’s) physical attributes, but scientists know way less about whether they also inherit personality traits from Mom and Dad. So even though your mom swears your daughter gets her extroverted tendencies from you, there’s more in play than your DNA. Environmental factors play a part too.
The Genetic Component
Mary Grace Clark swears she’s been tapped into her daughters’ very different personalities (they’re fraternal twins) since the Fort Worth mom was pregnant with them. “I had two cracked ribs from Ella during my pregnancy. Olivia was always calm, even in utero,” she says. Now, 18 months later, Ella’s got the huge personality, and Olivia is more reserved.
Most of us are like Clark. We recognize our child’s temperament from the get-go because there are some aspects of temperament that are hardwired. Just like genes dictate eye and hair color, genes can also determine a child’s inclination to take risks, be social and behave (or not). It’s all part of our temperament, which even determines why some kids are great sleepers and others are not.
But there’s more to understanding your child’s personality than realizing their inherent temperament. Although scientists decoded the human genome (the three billion chemical building blocks that make up human genetic material), researchers haven’t yet isolated the genes that might carry markers for all personality traits.
Why you ask? It’s complicated. Most cells in the body contain 46 chromosomes. Each chromosome carries many genes, which come in pairs. So half your child’s genes come from Mommy and half from Daddy. It sounds like predicting personality traits should be easy, right? Like flipping a coin? Not so. Only a few traits, like blood type, are controlled by a single pair of genes. Personality traits are the result of lots of genes, many unidentified, working together.
“Personality is a combination of many different genes,” says Maria Chahrour, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “It’s complex because it is not only affected by genetics but by your environment.” Which is all very difficult to measure. “Even in adults, we can only measure [personality] through questionnaires, asking people to evaluate themselves.” So yes, personalities exist from birth because genetics play a large role. “We are observing personality, but we can’t measure it in any useful way,” she says.
That’s because when DNA from two parents combine, often it changes. These changes are called variants. A physical variant might be the color of your child’s eyes. She may have a different eye color from you and your husband as a result of the gene mixing.
Personality falls on a spectrum, meaning there are far more options than green, blue, hazel and brown. And since genes work with one another and influence each other’s expression, it might take several different genetic combinations for a child to get a certain personality trait. Plus, to complicate matters even more, according to the Genome News Network, a news source for worldwide genomics research, genes can switch on and off because of environmental factors or other genetic influences so it can be hard to determine when a change in personality from one generation to the next is a result of genetic variation, environment or individual preference. “The qualities that form an individual’s unique traits have no objective measure,” Chahrour says. “So to try to simplify it, we came up with the big-five system model.”
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oregon came up with the big five—openness (adventurous vs. cautious), conscientiousness (carelessness vs. meticulousness), extraversion (introversion vs. extraversion), agreeableness (coldness vs. friendliness) and neurosis (anxiety and nervousness vs. confidence)—categories of personality after surveying thousands of people in the 1970s. These five are sets of two dichotomies at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Most kids (and adults for that matter) fall somewhere in between.
Researchers found that the big-five personality traits seem to surface early in life and are pretty good indicators of long-term personality and dispositions.
Ashley Vera is a mom of five, including fraternal twin 6-year-old boys. In an old home video, she pans around her Arlington playroom and finds a preschool-age Owen covered in green marker. He has a green mustache and beard and long, green scrawls on both arms. His legs and torso illustrate his enthusiastic green scribbles, even down to his toenails. They too have been carefully colored green. Owen declares that he is a green dragon. Ashley pans over to his twin brother, Jack, who has been playing with blocks. He is neatly dressed with his hair combed. He looks horrified as he takes in what Owen has done to himself and just stares as if he can’t comprehend it. She asks Jack if he wants to be a dragon too. “Owen yucky!” he says, before getting up and running out of the room.
Clearly, Vera’s boys are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Owen is definitely the more adventurous and careless, while Jack’s more cautious and meticulous. Two years later, nothing’s changed. And Vera can see how these traits in her children might look in adulthood. “I am much more likely to express myself through my appearance than my husband,” she admits. “Owen is doing a pretty good job of that in the video; whereas, I think my husband is a little more concerned about what other people think.”
So while these big five are good indicators of the person your child will become—a shy child, for instance, is more likely to grow into an introverted adult—your child’s educational pursuits, careers and relationships are not easily mapped out simply by using this big-five assessment.
“Experiences and variants and genes all shape [personality],” Chahrour stresses.
So the big-five traits are not necessarily set in stone.
The Environmental Factors
Dr. David Funder, author of The Personality Puzzle, has said that only about 40 percent of a child’s personality comes from inherited traits, meaning new experiences, your parenting style, education, therapy and lots of other environmental factors may impact 60 percent of our kids’ personalities.
Epigenetics is the study of how these environmental factors shape our genetics. Environmental factors such as your social experiences, even nutrition, toxicological exposures and adolescent hormones affect your kiddos’ personality.
Behavioral epigenetics studies how signals from the environment cause molecular biological changes that modify what happens in the brain and potentially affect DNA. That’s right, your kids may not solely be at the mercy of their genetic codes when it comes to their personalities.
Parents Impacting Personality
How we parent falls into that environmental category of things that help determine personality. And it obviously plays a large role. We can help our children bring out their best with a bit of guidance. For instance:
If your child is shy…
• You may need to literally let her lean on you at times and take new experiences slowly.
• It may be helpful to use a soothing, calm voice when talking to her, especially when prepping her for an unfamiliar situation, like the first day at a new school.
• Don’t rush her. She doesn’t need to be a social butterfly like you so don’t force her to mix with others if she’s just not feeling it.
If your child is a spitfire…
• Offer a place to calm down. Energetic kids benefit from soft lights and soothing music from time to time.
• Give clear instructions and set expectations to help with his impulsive tendencies.
• Help him find healthy, creative ways to express his feelings such as art, theater, dance or comedy.
If your kid is fearless…
• Let her negotiate—sometimes. It helps her understand that she can work with you, not against you.
• Avoid monotony and expose her to new things, even simple things like a food she hasn’t tried before or a book she’s never heard.
• Challenge her. Once she’s mastered something, take it to the next level, even if you’re just playing hide-and-seek.
If your kid is laid-back…
• Don’t let him get lost in the shuffle. Join him in his play even though he plays so well independently.
• Recognize his more subtle cues. Sometimes, easy-going kids don’t show emotions in obvious ways, like having a meltdown.
• Reinforce good behavior so your laid-back guy doesn’t act out to get the same attention his more energetic brother gets.
Studies show that children learn how to regulate emotion and interact with other people by observing their own parents. So if you have what you perceive as a potential negative trait, you may need to take the opposite approach to help a child overcome it. A child born with an inherited pessimistic outlook from Mom or Dad, for example, can be changed by the way Mom or Dad act and parent. A depressed, distant parent can send the child further down a bad path, but an attentive parent who models problem-solving behavior could lead the same child to a more positive way to approach situations.
Chahrour says a trait isn’t considered harmful unless it’s affecting the child’s physical or emotional well-being or the wellbeing of those around the child. If well-being is being impacted, it can be hard to determine which route to take when you do have a real problem because there are so many variables and factors that affect personality. Some kids benefit from treatments like behavioral therapy, others don’t. Sometimes you can treat a symptom of the personality problem with medication while you work on the cause. But sometimes you just can’t parent your way out of the problem, which would be the case with disorders like clinical depression, bipolar disorder and other chemical imbalances in the brain for which you should seek professional help.
It’s also important to note that not all of what you as the parent perceive as negative characteristics are bad. Those same traits that you find challenging now may benefit your kids later on. Intense, feisty kids can become passionate, creative and assertive. Shyer children can be more thoughtful, sensitive and empathetic. So don’t go trying to fix what isn’t broken unless it’s really broken.
“I don’t even want to think about when they are teenagers,” Clark laments. “I see Ella being the rebel, breaking rules, and pushing boundaries. Olivia is going to be in her room reading, doing her own thing. I don’t want Ella to feel like she’s bad all the time or that Olivia is a better person because she is an introvert and doesn’t push back as much.”
Though it seems like common sense, it’s important that we enjoy each of our children’s unique qualities and strengths while responding to that same child’s more difficult and challenging behaviors throughout childhood and adolescence.
You don’t have to do anything special to effectively parent different personalities, even difficult ones. All children need a supportive environment, positive feedback, role models who illustrate healthy behavior and someone to talk to about their emotions and experiences. Listen without judgement and show them healthy interactions and problem-solving instead of trying to mold them into a particular kind of person. Let your children be themselves, not images of you.