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Disentangling nature from nurture in examining the interplay between parent–child relationships, ADHD, and early academic attainment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2019

R. Sellers
School of Psychology, Andrew and Virginia Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, School of Medicine, MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
G. T. Harold*
School of Psychology, Andrew and Virginia Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, School of Medicine, MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin, Ireland
A. F. Smith
School of Psychology, Andrew and Virginia Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
J. M. Neiderhiser
Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
D. Reiss
Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT, USA
D. Shaw
University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
M. N. Natsuaki
University of California, Riverside, CA, USA
A. Thapar
Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, School of Medicine, MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
L. D. Leve
Prevention Science Institute, University of Oregon, Eugene, ORUSA
Author for correspondence: G. T. Harold, E-mail:



Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is highly heritable and is associated with lower educational attainment. ADHD is linked to family adversity, including hostile parenting. Questions remain regarding the role of genetic and environmental factors underlying processes through which ADHD symptoms develop and influence academic attainment.


This study employed a parent-offspring adoption design (N = 345) to examine the interplay between genetic susceptibility to child attention problems (birth mother ADHD symptoms) and adoptive parent (mother and father) hostility on child lower academic outcomes, via child ADHD symptoms. Questionnaires assessed birth mother ADHD symptoms, adoptive parent (mother and father) hostility to child, early child impulsivity/activation, and child ADHD symptoms. The Woodcock–Johnson test was used to examine child reading and math aptitude.


Building on a previous study (Harold et al., 2013, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(10), 1038–1046), heritable influences were found: birth mother ADHD symptoms predicted child impulsivity/activation. In turn, child impulsivity/activation (4.5 years) evoked maternal and paternal hostility, which was associated with children's ADHD continuity (6 years). Both maternal and paternal hostility (4.5 years) contributed to impairments in math but not reading (7 years), via impacts on ADHD symptoms (6 years).


Findings highlight the importance of early child behavior dysregulation evoking parent hostility in both mothers and fathers, with maternal and paternal hostility contributing to the continuation of ADHD symptoms and lower levels of later math ability. Early interventions may be important for the promotion of child math skills in those with ADHD symptoms, especially where children have high levels of early behavior dysregulation.

Original Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

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