Differential susceptibility in youth: evidence that 5-HTTLPR x positive parenting is associated with positive affect ‘for better and worse’
Positive affect has been implicated in the phenomenological experience of various psychiatric disorders, vulnerability to develop psychopathology and overall socio-emotional functioning. However, developmental influences that may contribute to positive affect have been understudied. Here, we studied youths’ 5-HTTLPR genotype and rearing environment (degree of positive and supportive parenting) to investigate the differential susceptibility hypothesis that youth carrying short alleles of 5-HTTLPR would be more influenced and responsive to supportive and unsupportive parenting, and would exhibit higher and lower positive affect, respectively. Three independent studies tested this gene–environment interaction in children and adolescents (age range 9–15 years; total N=1874). In study 1 (N=307; 54% girls), positive/supportive parenting was assessed via parent report, in study 2 (N=197; 58% girls) via coded observations of parent–child interactions in the laboratory and in study 3 (N=1370;53% girls) via self report. Results from all the three studies showed that youth homozygous for the functional short allele of 5-HTTLPR were more responsive to parenting as environmental context in a ‘for better and worse’ manner. Specifically, the genetically susceptible youth (that is, S’S’ group) who experienced unsupportive, non-positive parenting exhibited low levels of positive affect, whereas higher levels of positive affect were reported by genetically susceptible youth under supportive and positive parenting conditions. These findings are consistent with the differential susceptibility hypothesis and may inform etiological models and interventions in developmental psychopathology focused on positive emotion, parenting and genetic susceptibility.