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If you care about children’s healthy development – epigenetics is for you!

Peter Watt, Managing Director of Family Support Services Ltd, outlines how understanding epigenetics explains how a child’s environment impacts on the expression of their genes. Prior to joining Family Support Peter was the National Services Director of the NSPCC.

I am certainly no geneticist!  But, I am relieved to know that those who are, have confirmed something that I always believed. 

The first thing to say is that I was always wary of the nature-v-nurture debate. 

Specifically, I was instinctively uncomfortable in believing that our genes were so powerful that essentially everything, from hair-colour to confidence and sociability, were all pre-determined.  Did this mean that the positive things that we try and do as parents, carers and professionals were all meaningless? That whatever we did was either falling in genetically rich or genetically poor soil?  Despite all the evidence that genetic influences were powerful, I simply couldn’t accept the fatalism.  And, it didn’t seem to fit with my lived experience where I had seen the positive impact of caring and nurturing relationships.

But on the other hand, it was clearly nonsense to naively reject the impact of our genes on us.  The scientific evidence was there and, if I was honest with myself, I could see how the influence of genes helped explain certain traits in others and myself. And it helped explain, for instance, how people could be different despite being in apparently very similar circumstances.

So, my personal beliefs were challenged by the developing understanding of genetics.  But nevertheless, I refused to be fatalistic. I believed in the power of people’s ability to change and for others to help them achieve this.  I believed that environments and communities (good and bad) had an influence on outcomes for children and the adults that they become. 

Well I was right!!  Its such a relief. The answer to the nature-v-nurture debate is – its nearly always both.  And the scientific evidence for this is contained in the developing sphere of Epigenetics.   And a basic understanding of epigenetics and, critically, its implications for child development is an essential for all involved in caring for children.

So, what is epigenetics.  Well in terms that I, as a non-geneticist, can understand, our environment impacts on the expression of our genes.  In other words, the extent to which a particular genetic trait is expressed is a combination of the genetic trait itself plus the environment.  How? Well, to quote the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard:

During development, the DNA that makes up our genes accumulates chemical marks that determine how much or little of the genes is expressed. This collection of chemical marks is known as the “epigenome.” The different experiences children have rearrange those chemical marks. This explains why genetically identical twins can exhibit different behaviours, skills, health, and achievement.

Imagine a child with a genetic pre-disposition to be socially shy.  Their environment will mean that the impact of their ‘shy gene’ will be either reduced or enhanced. And conversely, a child with a gregarious genetic pre-disposition could be very gregarious (or less gregarious) because of their environment.  You can’t swap the genetic trait, but you can influence the expression. A genetically pre-disposed shy child would probably need an environment and social supports that worked harder to overcome shyness than for the gregarious child.  But they can become less shy. But the opposite is also true, and the environment can increase/decrease genetic expressions in ways that cause negative consequences.

For all of us involved in caring for children believing that we can create positive progress for them have been scientifically vindicated.  Toxic stress caused by things like abuse, neglect, and parental substance misuse can cause epigenetic changes for a child that harm their life chances.  Positive, nurturing relationships can cause epigenetic changes for a child that enhances their life chances.  These epigenetic changes can be permanent or temporary.  Certain negative changes can be reversed.  But the best strategy is to support loving, nurturing and responsive relationships around the child.  This will reduce stress and make sure that their brain is built with string foundations.

There is no room for fatalism when it comes to wanting the best outcomes for all children.  Epigenetics is the science that justifies our optimism and our aspiration.

If you would like to know more about our work at Family Support and whether we can support the thinking going on in your area contact me directly – peter.watt@family-support.org.uk. You can also take a look at our digital service at www.family-suppport.org.uk or follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Family Support is a Local Authority Trading Company owned by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. We deliver Early Help and Early Years Services Across the Borough.