Agents of Change: How the Science of Epigenetics Show that Loving Parenting Makes a Difference
March 19, 2023 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist
Foster care and adoption are hard, hard work. Children come to parents with all kinds of abuse, neglect, and trauma, the sum of which caregivers may never know. Parents work oh, so hard to provide a good home for their children. They apply all the therapeutic techniques they know and are taught, and their children still struggle. Parents may wonder if they are really making a difference, if things will ever get better. Yes, and yes! Though parents may not always see changes, the field of epigenetics is showing that positive environments do affect changes, even if not at a visible level. There is hope.
What is epigenetics? According to the Center for Disease Control [CDC] (2020), “epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” This is not DNA change, but rather gene change. Epigenetics, as a field, started growing in the 1970s, but came to prominence in the 2000s with access to increasing technology (Epigenetics, n.d.). The science shows how positive and negative environments activate or silence genes and their expression (Kanherkar, Bhatia-Dey, & Csoka, 2014). This science applies to infections, cancer, maternal nutrition, and more (CDC, 2020). Increasingly, people are exploring how epigenetics applies in the context of adoption (Hurley, 2015; Spector, 2013). A few people have written about epigenetics and foster care, but this is still an area to be explored (Schwandt, 2017; Smith, S.E., 2015). Future research aside, this science has already had profound practical application for foster and adoptive parents seeking to give children from hard places a loving home.
First of all, epigenetics provides perspective on why children struggle. Children have not just their own trauma responses but can inherit the effects of trauma that their parents experience (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 2017). For example, stress sensitivity seems to have generational transmission (Lacal & Venture, 2018). Even what parents eat can affect their children (Public Broadcasting System, 2007). This helps give parents context for the way their children behave. While context never excuses a behavior, understanding behavior and its sources can result in faster resolution.
Second, epigenetics show that positive parenting does make a difference. While children can carry in their genes the effects of stress and trauma, a new nurturing environment can start to reverse this damage (Ballantyne & Toth, 2017). This can provide hope for parents. The Bible gives the illustration of discipleship and evangelism with a planting metaphor:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service …
(1 Corinthians 3:6-9, New International Version [NIV])
The process of parenting children from hard places is similar. Some parents plant seeds. The parents in the next generation may water the seeds. In the end, at the genetic level, growth can and does come.
The Bible says that parental sin transmits to future generations. Specifically, it says that punishment for sin passes down “to the third and fourth generation of those who hate [him]” (New International Version, 2011, Ex 20:5; see also Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9). A generation is a long time (about 25 years; Devine, n.d.). That makes four generations a very long time to see hardship affect children, but this is exactly what epigenetics show. Genetic changes and healing often take four generations to emerge (Hughes, 2014). This calls for perseverance.
The Bible also contains another truth about generations. It says that God’s love passes down to “a thousand generations of those who love [God] and keep [his] commandments” (Exodus 20:6). Thousands of generations make up millenia (Britannica, n.d.). Ultimately, then, the way to change the world is to pass on God’s love. Foster and adoptive parents are agents of this love. They love by meeting the basic needs of their children. They love by setting boundaries. They love by making repairs after attachment ruptures. They love by taking children to therapy and offering other forms of support outside the home. They love by believing that children can and do change, even if they are not changing in the present moment.
Epigenetics is an exciting field. Epigenetics is an encouraging field. It validates the hard, hard work of parents called to foster and adopt by showing that nurturing environments do create real, visible change. Parents who love kids from hard places are agents of this change, not just for the current generation, but for generations to come.
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Devine, D. (n.d.) How long is a generation? Ancestry.
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Hughes, V. Epigenetics: The sins of the father. Nature 507, 22–24 (2014).
Hurley, D. (2015, June 24). Grandma’s experiences leave a mark on your genes. Discover Magazine.
Lacal, I., & Ventura, R. (2018). Epigenetic inheritance: Concepts, mechanisms and perspectives. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, 11.
Kanherkar, R. R., Bhatia-Dey, N., & Csoka, A. B. (2014). Epigenetics across the human lifespan. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, 2.
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (2017, July 17). Epigenetics between the generations: We inherit more than just genes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 9, 2022
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Schwandt, J. (2017, April 29). Foster children are not victims of their genes “…but masters of our fate…” Adoption.com.
Smith, S.E. (2015, December 24). The epigenetics of the foster system. This ain’t livin: Stillness is a lie, my dear. http://meloukhia.net/2015/12/the_epigenetics_of_the_foster_system/
Spector, T. (2013, July 13). Abuse, adoption and epigenetics. HuffPost.