photo of a family of four with a therapist

Can we shape kids' genetic exposure to behaviour problems?

16 July 2017

Children with difficult behaviour sought for study exploring the epigenetic impact of successful parenting program.

The creators of a successful, free program for children with behavioural problems have received new funding to test whether the program can influence children’s exposure to ongoing behavioural issues at the genetic level.

A research team led by Professor Mark Dadds, director of the University’s Child Behaviour Research Clinic and creator of the program, has received $846,000 from the National Health and Medical Research Council to continue delivering the program and test whether it can alter a child’s ongoing genetic risk. It is calling on parents in the greater Sydney region to take part in this study.

The Real Treatment Study: A Parenting Intervention for Child Conduct Problems is a 10-week parenting program delivered by the clinic, based at the University’s Brain and Mind Centre. It equips parents of two to eight-year olds to deal with children who won’t follow instructions, are very aggressive or regularly throw tantrums. The program focuses on showing parents how to work together to engage positively with children when they’re not behaving badly and to discipline them when they are.

Since it began in 2007 more than 1,000 families have participated in the program, which has proven highly effective at improving difficult behaviour.

If we can prove that a short parenting program can change a child’s ongoing genetic risk that would be phenomenal.
Professor Mark Dadds, Brain and Mind Centre

Previous research by Professor Dadds and colleagues established the receptor genes for the hormones cortisol and oxytocin, and the chemical dopamine, are dampened in children with behavioural problems. These genes play a key role in shaping behaviour; cortisol influences stress levels, oxytocin is associated with attachment and trust, and dopamine has an impact on attention spans. 

By taking a swab from inside the cheeks of participants before and after the program, Professor Dadds is hoping to establish whether it “turns the receptors up”.

“We already know this is an effective program and that treating kids at an early age, rather than waiting until they’re teenagers, is easier and makes them more resilient. We’re now going one step further by using epigenetics to ask the question ‘Can we turn these genetic receptors back on with some positive parenting?’” he said.

Families who take part in this research will come away with better behaved children and contribute towards important blue-sky research, which could impact generations to come, he said.

“If we can prove that a short parenting program can change a child’s ongoing genetic risk that would be phenomenal.”

Parents wishing to take part in the Real Treatment Study should contact the Child Behaviour Research Clinic. Participation requires an initial interview followed by weekly one-hour sessions at the clinic in Camperdown.

Jocelyn Prasad

Media and Public Relations Advisor

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