On a recent Sunday morning, I was sipping coffee and perusing the newspaper with my husband at the dining room table, blissfully enjoying a rare moment of relaxation, when my son burst through the front door. Glancing at the clock, I noticed it was only 10 a.m. Normally Sunday school lasted until 10:15, after which he walked home, another 10 or 15 minutes.
“Back so soon?” I asked casually.
“It was a family event,” he yelled back, with a heavy emphasis on family. Then he stomped up the steps, stifling tears, and slammed his bedroom door.
In about five seconds, I went from a complete state of relaxation to an overwhelming feeling of worthlessness as a mother. I’d neglected to attend, let alone write down on my calendar, an event to which I was supposed to go with my son.
At this point, I could digress down a thorny path of what it’s like to try to raise kids with the same faith I grew up with, yet, as an adult, no longer actively practice regularly. But that would likely result in a dissertation-length article with no resolution and perhaps little application to the issue at hand. Instead, I’ll stick to the ‘aha’ moment that struck me—or rather stung me like a slap across the face—when my adolescent son made me realize how I’d screwed up.
Here’s what it drilled into me: Even as our kids get older, they generally still want to know that we’re there for them—even if they’re ‘too cool’ to acknowledge us when we do take an interest and show up at events to support them. While this may seem like common sense, new and, I daresay, riveting scientific research backs up this theory. But it also adds a surprising twist.
Turns out, people whose genes contain specific variations are at greater risk of developing certain disorders, including depression and ADHD. But that’s not all. “These ‘risk’ genes also turn out to be associated with heightened sensitivity to environmental conditions,” wrote Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at University of California Davis, in last week’s New York Times.
In related research, scientists conducted a study on nearly 300 rural teenagers and their families who met for six consecutive group meetings, during which parents received lessons on providing emotional support to their children and encouraging responsible decision making, while the kids learned how to plan for their futures.
In the beginning of the study, the teens were tested for a particular ‘risk’ gene—the one linked to greater sensitivity to environmental conditions—via saliva samples. Two-plus years after the start of the study, researchers found that some of the teenage study subjects who came from the most troubled families but successfully completed the program with their parents avoided an increase in drug use during that time. Guess which traditionally ‘at risk’ teens were able to prevent a downward slide into drug use? Yep—those that carry the ‘risk’ gene.
I found it almost scary to learn that genes may predetermine, at least to a degree, a kid’s response to parental support, or lack thereof. I doubt these new findings will result in parents clamoring to test their kids’ saliva at birth to find out how much love and emotional support they should bother committing to parenthood. It (parenthood, that is) just doesn’t work that way. So, what’s the takeaway message?
Perhaps it’s that, as apathetic as adolescents may seem to their parents’ very existence, there’s a good chance they still need and want us around.
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