Recovering My Kid
When parents start to talk about their child’s personality, they suddenly become interested in how it came to be: Dave is just like his father, and his father was an alcoholic. The standard answer from psychologists is that personality results from a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (life experiences).
Why is a discussion about nature versus nurture so important? Because of our need for attribution. If they forget to make this distinction, parents will find it hard to look at their child’s emerging personality in an objective way.
When it comes to physical features like hair color or height, we don’t question genetics. When we talk about breeds of animals and the kinds of temperaments they display, we accept the role of genetics. But when it comes to our personalities and anything that cannot be assessed with our five physical senses, suddenly genetics are hard to talk about.
On the whole, I believe genetics are undervalued in the discussion about nature versus nurture. This might be due to the egalitarian appeal of nurture—the idea that skilled parenting and other favorable life circumstances from the start mean we can grow up to be anything and do anything.
The concept that genetics influence personality traits has the opposite effect. It makes us feel like robots from a factory. We see ourselves as predetermined and programmed to follow fixed routines—machines who live out their existence without a hint of free will.
I am certainly not suggesting that our genetic code dooms us and our children to a certain fate. However, the “personality is only about nurture” concept leads to needlessly painful discussions for parents. If genetics aren’t a major player in the personality game, then the attribution starts to flow in the direction of the home environment and parenting styles. All the fingers start pointing at the parents. They can end up filled with regret and saying that we “woulda, coulda, shoulda” done things differently.
Now, there’s no doubt that kids’ environments and experiences significantly shape their personality. Children are affected by their family situations, experiences with friends, and traumas. But then again, a child’s genetic loading can be strong enough to overpower nurturing. If someone has a strong family history of addiction, for example, then there’s a possibility he can become addicted even if he’s adopted by a new family and grows up in a different country.
Most parents have witnessed firsthand the impact of genetics on personality. They often see it when their children are at an early age—during the toddler years or even earlier. Many traits are set forth before any major life event steers it: a child’s sense of humor, penchant for anger, ability to transition between activities, athletic ability, and more. Not surprisingly, some of these traits are preserved over time.
Knowing about this provides useful information for clinical care down the road. For example, consider a child before the age of five who feels abnormal anxiety about separating from parents. This kid might refuse to start school and have difficulty with learning new activities. So if she complains of anxiety in the midst of addiction, it’s not a surprise. I know, based on develop mental history, that her personality was marked by higher levels of self-doubt, rigidity, or both, even prior to drug use. In turn, this gives me additional confidence in exploring the symptoms as true anxiety rather than dismissing them as by-products of craving and withdrawal.
A good way to think about personality is to say that a Chevy will always remain in some fundamental ways a Chevy. We can make it a great Chevy. We can replace the engine, the tires, and the seats. We can also install a new sound system. But fundamentally, the car is still a Chevy and not a Toyota, nor a Ford. Likewise, some personality traits are hardwired and act like parameters. Our experiences and environment greatly affect who we become—but within those genetic parameters. Personality is a relatively static quality, meaning that it takes a longer time to change than dynamic qualities (such as feeling sad).
It is important to note, however, that personalities can change. Imagine every person as a musical instrument that is capable of playing a range of notes. Some of those notes are melodic and some are harsh. Addiction can highlight the harsh notes, but this does not mean the instrument is beyond repair. I believe that the melody is still there and simply isn’t being expressed.
So take heart if you have been concerned about your child’s emerging temperament. I have seen many young men with a long history of violence and intense addiction go through dramatic change. Sometimes it’s about maturity. Sometimes it’s a spiritual awakening. And sometimes the transformations are forged through positive relationships.
Bottom line: It is important to balance our bias toward “nurture” with a conversation about “nature.” That way, we can avoid unnecessary attribution.
Excerpted from Recovering My Kid by Joseph Lee, M.D. Dr. Lee is the medical director for Hazelden’s youth addiction services. Dr. Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, but spent most of his youth in Norman, Oklahoma, where he went to college majoring in philosophy. After graduating from medical school, Dr. Lee completed his Adult Psychiatry residency at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, and his fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
In addition to board certification from the American Board of Addiction Medicine, Dr. Lee is a leading national advocate for adolescent addiction and mental health issues. He serves as a spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on issues of addiction.