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The genetic and environmental etiology of child maltreatment in a parent-based extended family design

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 February 2019

Katharina Pittner*
Centre for Forensic Family and Youth Care Studies, Leiden University Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden
Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn
Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden Department of Psychology, Education and Child Studies, Erasmus University, Rotterdam Primary Care Unit, School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge
Lenneke R. A. Alink
Centre for Forensic Family and Youth Care Studies, Leiden University Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden
Renate S. M. Buisman
Centre for Forensic Family and Youth Care Studies, Leiden University
Laura H. C. G. C. Compier-de Block
Centre for Forensic Family and Youth Care Studies, Leiden University Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden
Lisa J. M. van den Berg
Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden Institute of Psychology, Clinical Psychology Unit, Leiden University, Leiden
Bernet M. Elzinga
Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden Institute of Psychology, Clinical Psychology Unit, Leiden University, Leiden
Jolanda Lindenberg
Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing, Leiden
Marieke S. Tollenaar
Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden Institute of Psychology, Clinical Psychology Unit, Leiden University, Leiden
Vincent P. Diego
South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville
Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg
Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, Leiden Primary Care Unit, School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge Clinical Child and Family Studies, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Katharina Pittner, Centre for Forensic Family and Youth Care Studies, P.O. Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands; Email:


Child maltreatment has been associated with various cumulative risk factors. However, little is known about the extent to which genetic and environmental factors contribute to individual differences between parents in perpetrating child maltreatment. To estimate the relative contribution of genetic and environmental factors to perpetrating maltreatment we used a parent-based extended family design. Child-reported perpetrated maltreatment was available for 556 parents (283 women) from 63 families. To explore reporter effects (i.e., child perspective on maltreatment), child reports were compared to multi-informant reports. Based on polygenic model analyses, most of the variance related to the perpetration of physical abuse and emotional neglect was explained by common environmental factors (physical abuse: c2 = 59%, SE = 12%, p = .006; emotional neglect: c2 = 47%, SE = 8%, p < .001) whereas genetic factors did not significantly contribute to the model. For perpetrated emotional abuse, in contrast, genetic factors did significantly contribute to perpetrated emotional abuse (h2 = 33%, SE = 8%, p < .001), whereas common environment factors did not. Multi-informant reports led to similar estimates of genetic and common environmental effects on all measures except for emotional abuse, where a multi-informant approach yielded higher estimates of the common environmental effects. Overall, estimates of unique environment, including measurement error, were lower using multi-informant reports. In conclusion, our findings suggest that genetic pathways play a significant role in perpetrating emotional abuse, while physical abuse and emotional neglect are transmitted primarily through common environmental factors. These findings imply that interventions may need to target different mechanisms dependings on maltreatment type.

Special Section Articles
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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The study was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (MJBK: VICI Grant 453-09-003; LRAA: VIDI Grant 016.145.360; and MHvIJ: NWO SPINOZA prize) and grants of Leiden University to initiate and support the Research Profile Area Health, Prevention and the Human Life Cycle awarded to M.H. van IJzendoorn, P. Assendelft, and B. van Hemert.

We are grateful to all the families who have invested their time by participating in this study and to the students whose contribution to the data collection was invaluable. We thank Mariëlle Linting for her feedback on the manuscript and Rudi Westendorp for his contribution to the conception of the study.


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