Skip to main content Accessibility help

Examining the role of passive gene–environment correlation in childhood depression using a novel genetically sensitive design

  • Frances Rice (a1), Gemma Lewis (a2), Gordon T. Harold (a3) and Anita Thapar (a2)


Parental depression is associated with disruptions in the parent–child relationship, exposure to stressful family life events, and offspring depressive symptoms. Evidence suggests that intergenerational transmission of depression involves environmental and inherited contributions. We sought to evaluate the role of passive gene–environment correlation (rGE) in relation to depression, family life events that were due to parental behavior, and parental positivity in a sample where children varied in genetic relatedness to their rearing parents. Our study included 865 families with children born through assisted conception (444 related to both parents, 210 related to the mother only, 175 related to the father only, and 36 related to neither parent). Consistent with previous studies, the intergenerational transmission of depressive symptoms was largely due to environmental factors, although parent and child gender influenced results. Maternal and paternal depressive symptoms were associated with reduced positivity and increased parentally imposed life events regardless of parent–child relatedness. Results of path analysis were consistent with passive rGE for both maternal and paternal positivity in that positivity partially mediated the link between maternal/paternal depression and child depression only in genetically related parent–child pairs. Results also suggested passive rGE involving parentally imposed life events for mothers and fathers although passive rGE effects were smaller than for positivity.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Frances Rice, Department of Clinical, Educational, and Health Psychology, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, UK; E-mail:


Hide All
Angold, A., Costello, E. J., Messer, S. C., Pickles, A., Winder, F., & Silver, D. (1995). The development of a short questionnaire for use in epidemiological studies in children and adolescents. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 5, 237249.
Bjelland, I., Dahl, A. A., Haug, T. T., & Neckelmann, D. (2002). The validity of the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale: An updated literature review. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 52, 6977.
Bollen, K. (1989). Structural equations with latent variables. New York: Wiley.
Branje, S. J. T., Hale, W. W., Frijins, T., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2010). Longitudinal associations between perceived parent–child relationship quality and depressive symptoms in adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 751763.
Cantwell, D., Lewinsohn, P., Rohde, P., & Seeley, J. (1997). Correspondence between adolescent report and parent report of psychiatric diagnostic data. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 610619.
Connell, A. M., & Goodman, S. H. (2002). The association between psychopathology in fathers versus mothers and children's internalizing and externalizing behavior problems: A meta-analysis. Psycholological Bulletin, 128, 746773.
Davies, P. T., Harold, G. T., Goeke-Morey, M. C., Cummings, E. M., Shelton, K., Rasi, J. A., et al. (2002). Child emotional security and interparental conflict. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 67, 1127.
Davies, P.T., & Windle, M. (1997). Gender-specific pathways between maternal depressive symptoms, family discord, and adolescent adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 33, 657668.
De Los Reyes, A., & Kazdin, A. E. (2005). Informant discrepancies in the assessment of childhood psychopathology: A critical review, theoretical framework and recommendations for further study. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 483509.
D'Onofrio, B. M., Van Hulle, C. A., Waldman, I. D., Rodgers, J. L., Harden, K. P., Rathouz, P. J., et al. (2008). Smoking during pregnancy and offspring externalizing problems: An exploration of genetic and environmental confounds. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 139164.
Downey, G., & Coyne, J. C. (1990). Children of depressed parents: An integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 5076.
Eaves, L. J., Last, K., Martin, N. G., & Jinks, J. L. (1977). A progressive approach to non-additivity and genotype–environmental covariance in the analysis of human differences. British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Psychology, 30, 142.
Eaves, L. J., Silberg, J. L., & Erkanli, A. (2003). Resolving multiple epigenetic pathways to adolescent depression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 10061014.
Eley, T. C., Deater-Deckard, K., Fombonne, E., Fulker, D. W., & Plomin, R. (1998). An adoption study of depressive symptoms in middle childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 337345.
Feinberg, M., Neiderhiser, J.M., Howe, G., & Hetherington, E. M. (2001). Adolescent, parent, and observer perceptions of parenting: Genetic and environmental influences on shared and distinct perceptions. Child Development, 72, 12661284.
Gest, S. D., Reed, M. G. J., & Masten, A. S. (1999). Measuring developmental changes in exposure to adversity: A life chart and rating scale approach. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 171192.
Glowinski, A. L., Madden, P. A. F., Bucholz, K. K., Lynskey, M. T., & Heath, A. C. (2003). Genetic epidemiology of self-reported lifetime DSM-IV major depressive disorder in a population-based twin sample of female adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 988996.
Golombok, S., & MacCallum, F. (2003). Practitioner review: Outcomes for parents and children following nontraditional conception: What do clinicians need to know? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 303315.
Golombok, S., Murray, C., Jadva, V., Lycett, E., MacCallum, F., & Rust, J. (2006). Non-genetic and non-gestational parenthood: Consequences for parent–child relationships and the psychological well-being of mothers, fathers and children at age 3. Human Reproduction, 21, 19181924.
Goodman, S. H., & Gotlib, I. H. (1999). Risk for psychopathology in the children of depressed mothers: A developmental model for understanding mechanisms of transmission. Psychological Review, 106, 458490.
Goodyer, I. M., Cooper, P. J., Vize, C. M., & Ashby, L. (1993). Depression in 11–16-year-old girls—The role of past parental psychopathology and exposure to recent life events. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34, 11031115.
Hale, W. W., Van der Valk, I., Akse, J., & Meeus, W. (2008). The interplay of early adolescents' depressive symptoms, aggression and perceived parental rejection: A four-year community study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 928940.
Hammen, C., Brennan, P. A., & Shih, J. H. (2004). Family discord and stress predictors of depression and others in adolescent children of depressed and nondepressed women. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 43, 9941002.
Hammen, C., Gordon, D., Burge, D., Adrian, C., Jaenicke, C., & Hiroto, D. (1987). Maternal affective disorders, illness and stress: Risk for children's psychopathology. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 736741.
Harold, G. T., Rice, F., Hay, D. F., Boivin, J., van den Bree, M., & Thapar, A. (2011). Familial transmission of depression and antisocial behaviour symptoms: Disentangling the contribution of inherited and environmental factors and testing the mediating role of parenting. Psychological Medicine, 41, 11751185.
Hay, D. F., Pawlby, S., Sharp, D., Schmucker, G., Mills, A., Allen, H., et al. (1999). Parents' judgments about young children's problems: Why mothers and fathers might disagree yet still predict later outcomes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 12491258.
Hipwell, A., Keenan, K., Kasza, K., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., & Bean, T. (2008). Reciprocal influences between girls' conduct problems and depression, and parental punishment and warmth: A six-year prospective analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 663677.
Jacobvitz, D., Hazen, N., Curran, M., & Hitchens, K. (2004). Observations of early triadic family interactions: Boundary disturbances in the family predict symptoms of depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in middle childhood. Development and Psychopathology, 16, 577592.
Jaffee, S. R., & Price, T. (2007). Gene–environment correlations: A review of the evidence and implications for prevention of mental illness. Molecular Psychiatry, 12, 432442.
Jaffee, S. R., & Price, T. (2008). Genotype–environment correlations: Implications for determining the relationship between environmental exposures and psychiatric illness. Psychiatry, 7, 496499.
Johnson, J. H., & McCutcheon, S. (1980). Assessing life stress in older children and adolescents: Preliminary findings with the life events checklist. In Sarason, I. E. & Spielberger, C. D. (Eds.), Stress and anxiety (pp. 111125). New York: Hemisphere.
Kane, P., & Garber, J. (2004). The relations among depression in fathers, children's psychopathology and father–child conflict: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 24, 339360.
Kendler, K. S., & Baker, J. H. (2007). Genetic influences on measures of the environment: A systematic review. Psychological Medicine, 37, 615626.
Kendler, K. S., & Gardner, C. O. (2010). Dependent stressful life events and prior depressive episodes in the prediction of major depression: The problem of causal inferences in psychiatric epidemiology. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67, 11201127.
Kendler, K. S., Gardner, C. O., & Lichtenstein, P. (2008). A developmental twin study of symptoms of anxiety and depression: Evidence for genetic innovation and attenuation. Psychological Medicine, 38, 15671575.
Kendler, K. S., Gardner, C. O., & Prescott, C. A. (2002). Toward a comprehensive developmental model for major depression in women. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 11331145.
Kendler, K. S., Gardner, C. O., & Prescott, C. A. (2006). Toward a comprehensive developmental model for major depression in men. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 115123.
Lahey, B. B., D'Onofrio, B. M., & Waldman, I. D. (2009). Using epidemiologic methods to test hypotheses regarding causal influences on child and adolescent mental disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 5362.
Lau, J. Y., & Eley, T. C. (2006). Changes in genetic and environmental influences on depressive symptoms across adolescence and young adulthood. British Journal of Psychiatry, 189, 422427.
Lewis, G., Rice, F., Harold, G. T., Collishaw, S., & Thapar, A. (2011). Investigating environmental links between maternal depression and child anxiety/depression symptoms using a genetic design. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 50, 451459.
Lovejoy, M. C., Graczyk, P. A., O'Hare, E., & Neuman, G. (2000). Maternal depression and parenting behavior: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 561592.
McGue, M., Elkins, I., Walden, B., & Iacono, W. G. (2005). Perceptions of the parent–adolescent relationship: A longitudinal investigation. Developmental Psychology, 41, 971984.
McGue, M., & Lykken, D. T. (1992). Genetic influence on divorce. Psychological Science, 3, 368373.
Middeldorp, C. M., Cath, D. C., Vink, J. M., & Boomsma, D. I. (2005). Twin and genetic effects on life events. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 8, 224231.
Monroe, S. M., Rohde, P., Seeley, J. R., & Lewinsohn, P. M. (1999). Life events and depression in adolescence: Relationship loss as a prospective risk factor for first onset of major depressive disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108, 606614.
National Institute for Clinical Excellence, UK. (2005). Depression in children and young people: Identification and management in primary, community and secondary care (National Clinical Practice Guideline Number 28). Unpublished manuscript.
Neiderhiser, J. M., Reiss, D., Hetherington, E. M., & Plomin, R. (1999). Relationships between parenting and adolescent adjustment over time: Genetic and environmental contributions. Developmental Psychology, 35, 680692.
Neiderhiser, J. M., Reiss, D., Pedersen, N. L., Lichtenstein, P., Spotts, E. L., Hansson, K., et al. (2004). Genetic and environmental influences on mothering of adolescents: A comparison of two samples. Developmental Psychology, 40, 335351.
Pike, A., McGuire, S., Hetherington, E. M., Reiss, D., & Plomin, R. (1996). Family environment and adolescent depressive symptoms and antisocial behavior: A multivariate genetic analysis. Developmental Psychology, 32, 590603.
Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., & Loehlin, J. C. (1977). Genotype–environment interaction and correlation in the analysis of human behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 84, 309322.
Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., McClearn, G. E., & McGuffin, P. (2008). Behavioral genetics (5th ed.). New York: Worth.
Ramchandani, P., & Psychogiou, L. (2009). Paternal psychiatric disorders and children's psychosocial development. Lancet, 374, 646653.
Reiss, D., Neiderhiser, J. M., Hetherington, E. M., & Plomin, R. (2000). The relationship code: Deciphering genetic and social influences on adolescent development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Repetti, R. L., Taylor, S. E., & Seeman, T. E. (2002). Risky families: Family social environments and the mental and physical health of offspring. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 330366.
Rice, F., Harold, G. T., Boivin, J., Hay, D., van den Bree, M. M. B., & Thapar, A. (2009). Disentangling prenatal and inherited influences in humans with an experimental design. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 24642467.
Rice, F., Harold, G. T., Boivin, J., Hay, D., van den Bree, M. M. B., & Thapar, A. (2010). The effects of gestational stress on offspring birth weight and psychopathology: Disentangling prenatal environmental and inherited influences. Psychological Medicine, 40, 335345.
Rice, F., Harold, G. T., & Thapar, A. (2002). The genetic aetiology of childhood depression: A review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43, 6579.
Rice, F., Harold, G. T., & Thapar, A. (2003). Negative life events as an account of the age-related differences in the aetiology of depression in childhood and adolescence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 977987.
Rohner, R. (1984). Handbook for the study of parental acceptance and rejection. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut, Center for the Study of Parental Acceptance and Rejection.
Rutter, M. (2007). Proceeding from observed correlation to causal inference: The use of natural experiments. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 377395.
Rutter, M., Pickles, A., Murray, R., & Eaves, L. (2001). Testing hypotheses on specific environmental causal effects on behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 291324.
Scarr, S., & McCartney, K. (1983). How people make their own environments: A theory of genotype–environment effects. Child Development, 54, 424435.
Scourfield, J., Rice, F., Thapar, A., Harold, G. T., Martin, N., & McGuffin, P. (2003). Depressive symptoms in children and adolescents: Changing aetiological influences with development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 968976.
Shelton, K. H., Boivin, J., Hay, D., Boivin, J., van den Bree, M. B. M., & Thapar, A. (2009). Examining differences in psychological adjustment problems among children conceived by assisted reproductive technologies. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 33, 385392.
Silberg, J. L., Maes, H., & Eaves, L. J. (2010). Genetic and environmental influences on the transmission of parental depression to children's depression and conduct disturbance: An extended children of twins study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 734744.
Singh, A. L., D'Onofrio, B. M., Slutske, W. S., Turkheimer, E., Emery, R. E., Harden, K. P., et al. (2011). Parental depression and offspring psychopathology: A children of twins study. Psychological Medicine, 41, 13851395.
Stice, E., Ragan, J., & Randall, P. (2004). Prospective relations between social support and depression: Differential direction of effects for parent and peer support? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113, 155159.
Sullivan, P. F., Neale, M. C., & Kendler, K. S. (2000). Genetic epidemiology of major depression: Review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 15521562.
Thapar, A., Harold, G. T., & McGuffin, P. (1998). Life events and depression symptoms in childhood—Shared genes or shared adversity? A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 11531158.
Thapar, A., & McGuffin, P. (1996). Genetic influences on life events in childhood. Psychological Medicine, 26, 813820.
Thapar, A., Rice, F., Hay, D., Boivin, J., Langley, K., van den Bree, M. M. B., et al. (2009). Prenatal smoking may not cause ADHD: Evidence from a novel design. Biological Psychiatry, 66, 722727.
Thapar, A., & Rutter, M. (2009). Do prenatal risk factors cause psychiatric disorder? Be wary of causal claims. British Journal of Psychiatry, 195, 100101.
Tully, E. C., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2008). An adoption study of parental depression as an environmental liability for adolescent depression and childhood disruptive disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 11481154.
van den Oord, E., Boomsma, D. I., & Verhulst, F. C. (1994). A study of problem behaviors in 10- to 15- year-old biologically related and unrelated international adoptees. Behavior Genetics, 24, 193205.
Weissman, M. M., Wickramaratne, P., Nomura, Y., Warner, V., Pilowsky, D., & Verdeli, H. (2006). Offspring of depressed parents: 20 years later. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 10011008.
Zigmond, A. S., & Snaith, R. P. (1983). The hospital anxiety and depression scale. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 67, 361370.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed