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Barreto-Zarza, F.; Arranz-Freijo, E.B. Family Context, Parenting and Child Development. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/20661 (accessed on 19 April 2024).
Barreto-Zarza F, Arranz-Freijo EB. Family Context, Parenting and Child Development. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/20661. Accessed April 19, 2024.
Barreto-Zarza, Florencia, Enrique B. Arranz-Freijo. "Family Context, Parenting and Child Development" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/20661 (accessed April 19, 2024).
Barreto-Zarza, F., & Arranz-Freijo, E.B. (2022, March 16). Family Context, Parenting and Child Development. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/20661
Barreto-Zarza, Florencia and Enrique B. Arranz-Freijo. "Family Context, Parenting and Child Development." Encyclopedia. Web. 16 March, 2022.
Family Context, Parenting and Child Development
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Based on the identification of a key developmental process in which interactions are continuously internalised, using an epigenetic approach draws attention to the bidirectional and systemic nature of intrafamily and parenting interactions and highlights the multiple factors that influence them, which are linked to the developmental history of the species, the individual characteristics of both the child and their parents, and contextual variables. In response to these internalised interactions, the body activates epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation, which without changing the structure of genes, may affect the expression of the genome leading to a variety of diseases and phenotypic profiles.

parent–child interactions parenting early childhood development epigenetics

1. Parenting Science in the 21st Century: Theoretical and Methodological Implications

The first issue to resolve is whether the contents and reflections outlined in this essay truly support the proposal to use an epigenetic approach as a unifying theoretical framework for gaining a deeper understanding of the influence of family context and parenting on children’s psychological development. If epigenetics aims to explain changes in development by taking genetic and contextual variables into account, then it is only logical to establish the interactions between the two influences as the basic unit of analysis. Moreover, once the object of analysis has been established, the next step would be to view the process by which interactions are internalised (according to Vygotsky’s theory) as an active mechanism. Since everyone is exposed to exclusive interactions in different contexts throughout the course of their life, these interactions result in different individual phenotypic expressions. As Beach et al. (2016) point out, research into epigenetics as a mediator of the connections between family/community processes and a range of developmental outcomes is still a growing field; however, it is also true, as indeed highlighted by the above-mentioned authors, that the potential to develop important insights regarding mechanisms linking modifiable environments to biological processes and long-term health and developmental outcomes is already coming into view. There can be no doubt that this poses an important challenge that parenting science will have to deal with over the coming years.
While encompassing many different influences, traditional approaches such as bioecological theory nevertheless have difficulty including, in a specific ring, variables with very different qualitative significance, such as, for example, exposure of the embryo to neurotoxins and children’s exposure to destructive interparental conflict. The bioecological approach also has trouble explaining phenomena such as, for instance, the intergenerational transmission of parenting patterns. This transmission actually occurs and is fundamentally epigenetic in nature, meaning that it occurs independently of individuals’ genetic makeup and takes place at an ‘epi’ level, i.e., a level above that of genes (Unternaehrer et al. 2021).
One point in favour of using the epigenetic approach as a unifying and inclusive framework for explaining the influences of family context and parenting on psychological development is that it effortlessly encompasses the concept of nonshared environments as a defining concept of all those specific interactions in an individual’s life that together help explain the interindividual differences that are so characteristic of human beings, and which are manifested in each person’s unique phenotypic profile. It is very important to highlight that recognising the impact of nonshared environments on children’s development in no way negates the simultaneous impact of so-called shared environments, which also interact with the genetic blueprint throughout the development process. This is especially relevant when it comes to understanding and identifying parenting practices that are common to the entire family system and those that are specific to each brother or sister.
It is worth highlighting that the epigenetic approach proposed here is conceptually flexible, meaning that it is a model that admits epigenetic changes beyond those strictly linked to the main process of DNA methylation (Bjorklund 2018a). In this sense, two levels for identifying and understanding epigenetic processes can be established: that pertaining to DNA methylation or histone modification processes, and that pertaining to changes in psychological development inferred through observation or behavioural assessment. Nevertheless, further research is required to replicate these findings and, for example, the epigenetic profile of each attachment pattern described in the literature needs to be explored, along with those of psychopathological disorders and, in general, other conditions that may affect health outcomes.
The next relevant conclusion that can be drawn in relation to the proposal is that parenting science in the 21st century is certain to face some serious methodological challenges. The epigenetic approach requires research designs that take into account the coinfluence of many different factors on the dependent variables being studied in each case, and this in turn requires analysis procedures capable of measuring the bidirectional processes described above, as well as the differential influence of different independent variables on specific dependent variables. One example would be the multiple-regression analyses provided by structural-equation modelling. The study of parenting is currently a highly interdisciplinary field, and it is now more necessary than ever to establish a common working framework and research map that renders experimental ‘micro’ studies compatible with cohort studies seeking to analyse the influence of many different variables simultaneously. At the same time, it is worth highlighting the fact that the epigenetic approach allows researchers to study psychological development at the intraindividual level, searching for diverse phenotypic pathways, as well as at the interindividual level, comparing sample groups belonging to different backgrounds. 

2. Challenges and Opportunities for Parents and Policymakers in the 21st Century

Probably the most important conclusion drawn by this essay is that the proposed approach has enormous potential in the field of applied science and family and parenting policies. In this regard, it is worth highlighting several of the challenges and opportunities for professionals and policymakers that can be derived from this work. Firstly, the flexibility and openness to context of the epigenetic model opens the doors to multiple preventive and/or therapeutic interventions in the social, educational and health fields. A complex understanding of parenting influences on developmental processes will enable more finely tuned interventions, based on the identification of general development laws. This is especially important when it comes to preventing the cycle of intergenerational transmission of poor parenting and early adversity, as Lomanowska et al. (2017) point out. This approach will also enable the design of customised parenting interventions based on each individual’s unique epigenetic process.
Secondly, the analysis of the literature provided in this essay highlights the importance of paying attention to findings linked to the neurohormonal background of parenting. This is a relevant topic, since the science of parenting is making progress in building a biological profile of good and bad parenting consisting of biomarkers such as methylation indicators and hormonal correlates. This profile may prove very useful for screening the quality of family interactions in large family samples. Screening should be accompanied by an exhaustive assessment of the quality of family contexts, which would provide empirical support for the design of family policies adapted to the needs and deficiencies of different communities. As much as quality of family context assessment is essential to properly weight contextual influences, in no case can this approach be understood as a biological determinism.
A third relevant issue that emerges from the literature review is linked to the negative impact of toxic stress, both as an inhibitor of family interactive quality and as a trigger of epigenetic processes linked to cortisol segregation. Coping with stress is one of the great challenges faced by parents today, as seen especially during the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected all of humanity. Finally, family policymakers and parents themselves share the challenge of preserving the quality of parenting even in the most adverse situations, such as those faced by vulnerable families living, for example, in refugee camps or in situations of poverty and violence. A good example of an attempt to rise to this challenge is the UNICEF Care for the Children programme (Lucas et al. 2018), which combines psychoeducational parenting interventions with care and nutrition-focused ones. In the 21st century, mothers and fathers should have the opportunity to be adequately empowered to cope with family stress in a positive way, and to provide adequate cognitive and socioemotional scaffolding that promotes healthy child and adolescent psychological development.
In sum, following the latest international recommendations for the development of parenting policies, the 21st century should be the century of family-oriented policies that include universal services for the preventive evaluation of the quality of family contexts, community promotion, so-called social parenting and healthy psychological development. As Perks and Cluver (2020) state, the time is right for the widespread administration of a parenting vaccine through the implementation of positive parenting programmes.

References

  1. Beach, Steven R., Gene H. Brody, Allen W. Barton, and Robert A. Philibert. 2016. Exploring Genetic Moderators and Epigenetic Mediators of Contextual and Family Effects: From Gene×Environment to Epigenetics. Development and Psychopathology 28: 1333–46.
  2. Unternaehrer, Eva, Maria Meier, Andrée-Anne Bouvette-Turcot, and Shantala A. Hari Dass. 2021. Long-Term Epigenetic Effects of Parental Caregiving. In Developmental Human Behavioral Epigenetics. In Developmental Human Behavioral Epigenetics. Edited by Livio Provenzi and Rosario Montirosso. Cambridge: Academic Press, pp. 105–17.
  3. Bjorklund, David F. 2018a. Behavioral Epigenetics: The Last Nail in the Coffin of Genetic Determinism. Human Development 61: 54–59.
  4. Lomanowska, Anna M., Michel Boivin, Clyde Hertzman, and Alison S. Fleming. 2017. Parenting Begets Parenting: A Neurobiological Perspective on Early Adversity and the Transmission of Parenting Styles across Generations. Neuroscience 342: 120–39.
  5. Lucas, Jane E., Linda M. Richter, and Bernadette Daelmans. 2018. Care for Child Development: An intervention in support of responsive caregiving and early child development. Child: Care, Health and Development 44: 41–49.
  6. Perks, Benjamin, and Lucie D. Cluver. 2020. The parenting ‘vaccine’. Nature Human Behaviour 4: 985–85.
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