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

  • Katharina Pittner (a1) (a2), Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn (a2) (a3) (a4), Lenneke R. A. Alink (a1) (a2), Renate S. M. Buisman (a1), Laura H. C. G. C. Compier-de Block (a1) (a2), Lisa J. M. van den Berg (a2) (a5), Bernet M. Elzinga (a2) (a5), Jolanda Lindenberg (a6), Marieke S. Tollenaar (a2) (a5), Vincent P. Diego (a7) and Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg (a2) (a4) (a8)...


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.


Corresponding author

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:


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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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