• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Monday 01st July, 2013

A tendency to be disliked? How genetics relate to peer rejection in school

A lack of friends and poor peer relationships can have a damaging effect on children’s emotional development, leading to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. But how far do problems relate to the environments in which children are raised, and how far are their own, personal characteristics at the root of problems?A large study of identical and non-identical twins in Canada casts new light on the issues by identifying attributing an important part of children’s peer relationship difficulties to genetic factors. It also suggests that the connection between children’s personal characteristics and negative experiences, such as peer rejection and peer victimization, remains strong as they grow towards adolescence.But far from concluding that peer difficulties are unavoidable for some children, the researchers argue that their findings make the case for early and persistent intervention to prevent long-term emotional problems even more powerful. Untangling ‘nature’ from “nurture”Estimates vary, but between approximately 5 and 10 per cent of children experience chronic difficulties with peer relationships. These experiences can not only go on to cause emotional problems but are also risk factors for poor physical health, behavior and educational problemsScientists trying to untangle how far child development problems relate to inherited, personal characteristics and how far to their surrounding environment have often made use of “twin studies”. By studying both identical twins (whose genetic make-up is the same) and non-identical twins (on average sharing 50 per cent of the same genotype) they can reach conclusions about the contributions of “nature” and “nurture” that would otherwise not be possible.The Canadian research, studying more than 400 pairs of twins born in the greater Montreal area, is unique for having looked at their peer relationships over five years, when the children were in kindergarten (median age, 6), Grade 1 (median age, 7) and Grade 4 (median age 10). They also obtained perspectives on the children’s peer relationships from multiple informants, including teachers and peers as well as the children themselves.Children’s social preferences were measured by asking the classes that included children from the twin study to circle their three favorite peers to play with in the class and their least three favorites. Peers were also asked to name the children in class who got called names most, while teachers completed a short questionnaire measuring peer rejection and victimization and the twins themselves were interviewed, individually, by the research team. The results demonstrated that genetic factors account for a large part of both initial and continuing peer difficulties. Twins from the same family were extremely similar in terms of their peer difficulties and these difficulties were mainly explained by their genetic similarities. They add that the genetic factors underlying peer difficulties appear to be enduring: “As the negative experiences crystallize, the same children with the same genetic vulnerabilities tend to become chronically embroiled in a cycle of negative peers experiences.”The lessons for preventionIn discussing possible mechanisms for their findings, the researchers suggest the strong genetic contribution to peer unpopularity and victimization during the early school years could partly explained by the known genetic components in aggressive behavior and other conditions, including hyperactivity and speech problems.One welcome aspect of the study is the way it is reported. The research team warn against “deterministic” interpretations of their results and any implication that peer difficulties are irredeemable, or that intervention efforts are useless.Instead, they conclude that children’s characteristics can help to identify those in need of support and intervention to prevent negative peer relationships becoming embedded and to break the cycle of coercion. An early and persistent approach to prevention is needed that targets both the children at risk of deepening emotional and behavioral problems and their peers.*********References: Boivin, M., Vitaro, F., Girard, A., Perusse, D., Brendgen, M., Dionne, G., & Tremblay, R. (2012). Strong Genetic Contribution to Peer Relationship Difficulties at School Entry: Findings From a Longitudinal Twin Study. Child Development, 84 (3), 1098-1114.

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