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date: 22 October 2017

Intergenerational Transmission of Risk for Behavioral Problems Including Substance Use

Summary and Keywords

Intergenerational studies are key to informing research, preventive intervention, and policy regarding family influences on healthy development and maladjustment. Continuities in family socialization and contextual risks across generations, as well as genetic factors, are associated with the development of psychopathology—including externalizing problems in children—and with intergenerational associations in the use of marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; these continuities are reflected in the low-to-moderate associations generally found in prospective studies. Until recent years, estimates of intergenerational continuities in problem behaviors and the processes explaining such associations (e.g., parenting behaviors) have been based largely on retrospective reports by adults about their own parents’ behaviors. Now there are some long-term prospective studies spanning as many as 30 years that can assess linkages between behaviors in one generation and the next. Whereas such studies have considerable design and implementation challenges, and are very expensive, it is of critical importance to examine the magnitude of associations of behaviors across generations. For example, a modest association across generations suggests either that genetic factors have a limited influence on that behavior or that they are subject to considerable moderation by environmental factors. These prospective studies relate to theoretical developments regarding intergenerational influences that are reviewed—for example, individual differences in genetic sensitivity to environmental influences. The theoretical approach employed in the Oregon Youth Study—Three Generation Study is a Dynamic Developmental Systems (DDS) model of continuous feedback across systems throughout development. A new hypothesis encompassed by DDS is developmental congruence of intergenerational associations in problem behaviors. As used in geometry, congruence refers to figures of a similar shape and size. This term has been adapted to refer to the expectation that ages of onset and patterns of growth in key behaviors will show similarity across generations. This is based on the theory that genetic and temperamental factors increase an individual’s risk when these factors are expressed at sensitive developmental periods. Thus, the timing of these manifestations (e.g., susceptibility to deviant peer influences) is expected to be similar across generations. Developmental similarity is also likely due to continuities in social-risk context and family mechanisms, such as parenting.

Keywords: intergenerational, conduct problems, substance use, psychopathology, Dynamic Developmental Systems, Developmental Congruence


The predominant theories regarding the emergence of problem behaviors, including the externalizing cluster of behaviors (e.g., conduct problems, delinquency/crime, violence, sexual risk behavior, and substance use), also referred to as antisocial behavior in adulthood, are intergenerational—they are specifically related to either genetic or socialization factors, or both. Beliefs about intergenerational continuities run deep, particularly with regard to socialization of violence. It is widely believed that if you hit your partner, it must be because you saw your father hit your mother, or, similarly, that if you physically punish or are abusive to your children, it must be because that is how you were treated as a child.

The notion of discontinuity also resonates with popular belief and clinical observation. Parents express their motivation to help their children avoid the turmoil they experienced in statements such as “I won’t let her make the same mistakes I did,” or “I don’t want my son to be scared of me the way I was of my father.” Until relatively recently, any tests of such questions relied on retrospective recall of childhood experiences from those engaging in the problem behavior or those who experienced abuse. These populations are potentially nonrepresentative. Moreover, retrospection is prone to recall and reporting bias, particularly among those who have depression or other psychopathology, and is also prone to rationalization of one’s own poor behavior (Capaldi, 1996; Patten, 2003, Thornberry, 2009). Thus, findings from prior studies may be unreliable.

Prospective intergenerational studies are lengthy, expensive, and challenging to conduct, yet provide crucial information compared with more traditional study designs. Continuities in family socialization and contextual risks across generations, as well as genetic factors, are associated with the development of externalizing problems in children (Conger, Belsky, & Capaldi, 2009; Serbin & Karp, 2003; Simonoff, 2001). Each parent shares on average 50 percent of their genes with a biological child, and accurate estimates of the size of intergenerational associations in conduct problems are needed to interpret the role of contributing factors. The size of the associations places an upper bound on the possible contributions of all aspects of continuity combined, including genetic contributions. Note that the terms “externalizing behaviors” and “conduct problems” are generally used in studies to refer to antisocial behaviors in childhood, which are characterized as behaviors that break family and societal rules (e.g., lying, fighting stealing, substance use or abuse), and the term “conduct disorder” is used to refer to conduct problems that meet clinical diagnostic criteria. The term “antisocial behavior” is a broad expression referring to such behaviors generally in adulthood, and relates to the antisocial behavior disorder diagnosis of adults (particularly involving criminal behaviors).

In about the last 10 to 15 years, the research arena has introduced prospective, longitudinal studies that have run over a 20- to 30-year period—often assessing three generations (G1, G2, G3) with prospective data on G2 and G3, thereby providing higher quality data for addressing intergenerational questions (e.g., Bailey, Hill, Oesterle, & Hawkins, 2009; Capaldi, Pears, Patterson, & Owen, 2003; Conger, Neppl, Kim, & Scaramella, 2003, Serbin et al., 2004; Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant, Lizotte, Krohn, & Smith, 2003). For example, assessments have been made of G2 marijuana use in adolescence and approximately 20 years later G3 onset of marijuana use in adolescence, with different reporters for each generation (Kerr, Tiberio, & Capaldi, 2015). In 2003, several articles published from such studies examined the intergenerational transmission of antisocial behavior (Capaldi et al., 2003; Conger et al., 2003; Hops, Davis, Leve, & Sheeber, 2003; Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant et al., 2003). Study samples varied in a number of ways, including degree of risk, ethnic composition, region of the United States, age of the G3 child, and measurement of antisocial behavior in each generation (e.g., early childhood temperamental precursors of antisocial behavior, observations of angry aggressive behavior). Findings from these and later studies have converged in indicating significant but modest cross-generation associations across a variety of indicators of problem behaviors. Prospective associations between generations for conduct problems in childhood and adolescence tend to be low (e.g., Capaldi et al., 2003; Conger et al., 2003; Dubow, Huesmann, & Boxer, 2003; Kim, Capaldi, Pears, Kerr, & Owen, 2009; Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant et al., 2003; Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant, & Lovegrove, 2009; van Meurs, Reef, Verhulst, & van der Ende, 2009), with maximum associations generally in the r = .30 range.

This raises interesting questions of what may account for changes or discontinuity in these behaviors across generations (Thornberry, Hops, Conger, & Capaldi, 2003). The modest associations could suggest that genetic and environmental continuity factors may be weaker than expected or may be subject to a relatively high level of mediation and/or moderation by other factors. Prospective intergenerational studies are essential to examining these factors and thus to informing research and policy regarding cross-generation associations. We turn our attention to the review of findings on mediating and moderating factors that may explain continuities and discontinuities in the intergenerational transmission of problem behaviors. In particular, maltreatment, exposure to family violence, poor parenting, and low levels of positive parenting are major social mechanisms (i.e., mediators) by which problem behaviors are transmitted across generations. Perhaps because these mechanisms are malleable and thus relevant to prevention efforts, intergenerational researchers also have focused on how the mediators themselves are transmitted from the family of origin to the family of procreation.

Intergenerational Family Violence

Intergenerational links in family violence—particularly child maltreatment and the cycle of maltreatment hypothesis, but also intimate partner violence—have been the focus of much research attention. Perpetration of each of these forms of family violence is predicted by conduct problems and aggression during adolescence (Black, Heyman, & Slep, 2001; Capaldi, Kim, & Pears, 2009), and each is also predictive of future conduct problems in the offspring. Thornberry, Knight, and Lovegrove (2012) conducted a systematic review of intergenerational studies of child maltreatment that tested whether a history of maltreatment victimization is a risk factor for later perpetration of such maltreatment. The included studies had to meet a number of criteria, such as representative samples, prospective designs, and different reporters for each generation. Relatively few studies met the criteria, and findings of the methodologically stronger studies indicated mixed support for the intergenerational hypothesis. Thus, the positive association that is often reported may be based on studies with designs where the measures of maltreatment across generations are subject to retrospective and/or reporting bias from a single participant, or the findings may be based on nonrepresentative samples that do not generalize to the larger population. A further study by Thornberry (Thornberry & Henry, 2013) using a strong design, including careful controls, found that a history of maltreatment victimization did increase the risk of becoming a perpetrator of maltreatment. This finding is supported by a study with the Oregon Youth Study data meeting similar criteria (Pears & Capaldi, 2001), and by findings of a long-term study of maltreatment, as summarized by Widom and Wilson (2015). Thus, the association is significant but not as strong as frequently assumed, which leads to questions about processes that disrupt intergenerational continuities in family violence.

In a systematic review of risk factors for intimate partner violence (IPV), Capaldi, Knoble, Shortt, and Kim (2012) examined intergenerational associations. Similar to reviews of intergenerational child maltreatment, they found relatively few studies with fully prospective designs. In one such study, Linder and Collins (2005) found that individuals who were victims of child maltreatment witnessed parental IPV, or experienced parental boundary violations (i.e., parental seductiveness or role reversal), reported higher levels of IPV in their own relationships. Similarly, Ehrensaft et al. (2003) found that exposure to parental IPV was a risk factor for later IPV involvement, but not as strong a predictor as conduct disorder. Finally, Capaldi and Clark (1998) found that parental antisocial behavior predicted both the parents’ own IPV involvement and a pathway via the adolescents’ development of antisocial behavior to men’s IPV perpetration. Similar to Ehrensaft, they found that parental IPV was not a significant predictor after controlling for the intergenerational antisocial behavior pathway. On the basis of these studies and the studies with weaker retrospective designs, Capaldi, Pears, Kerr, Owen, and Kim (2012) concluded that there is evidence of a low-to-moderate significant association between witnessing parental IPV and later perpetrating or being victimized by IPV. The findings also suggest that more proximal factors, including the individual’s antisocial behavior and adult adjustment, may mediate the intergenerational transmission of IPV. An implication may be that preventive intervention efforts should not be guided by the assumption that parent modeling of partner violence is the primary mechanism of intergenerational continuity and cause of IPV. Rather, targeting antisocial behavior more broadly may be more effective at preventing IPV.

Intergenerational Associations in Negative and Positive Parenting Practices

As reviewed above, intergenerational studies have contributed to the understanding of continuities in family violence. Researchers also have examined the transmission of more prevalent forms of parenting and discipline implicated in the propagation of problem behavior over generations. A special section of Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2003 was devoted to this topic. Our findings indicated G1 poor parenting of G2 in late childhood predicted G2 poor parenting of G3 in early childhood (Capaldi et al., 2003). Findings from the other three studies using different measures and samples were generally similar (Thornberry, Hops et al., 2003). Likewise, in a special section of Developmental Psychology in 2009, findings on continuities in parenting from five more mature intergenerational samples were presented. This time, three of the five studies (Kerr, Capaldi, Pears, & Owen, 2009; Kovan, Chung, & Sroufe, 2009; Shaffer, Burt, Obradovic, Herbers, & Masten, 2009) examined positive aspects of parenting (e.g., parental involvement, monitoring, positive communication, positive relationship); whereas two studies considered aspects of both positive and negative parenting (e.g., harsh discipline; Bailey et al., 2009; Neppl, Conger, Scaramella, & Ontai, 2009). Significant but relatively modest associations were found prospectively for the associations of G1 and G2 parenting, ranging from r = .17 to .43. These ranges show similarity to the magnitudes of associations for problem behaviors found from G2 to G3. As noted by Conger et al. (2009) in their closing comments, the indices of continuity did not vary greatly by types of populations studied, which varied from high to low risk and from urban to rural. Also, the types of measures used to assess parenting across the two generations varied considerably from observational ratings to parenting reports. This lends confidence that the findings of significant associations are relatively robust.

The fact that multiple studies found significant intergenerational associations in problem behavior and parenting leads to further investigations of the mechanisms involved in such links. There have been a number of prospective studies of intergenerational associations in antisocial behavior examining the mediating role of harsh parenting and in harsh parenting examining the mediating role of antisocial behavior. Neppl et al. (2009) examined the mediating role of G2 externalizing behavior in the association of harsh parenting across G1 and G2 and found that the association was fully mediated by externalizing behavior. Thus, it appeared that the intergenerational transmission of harsh parenting only occurred if G2 developed externalizing behavior. Kerr et al. (2009) examined the father’s constructive parenting (efficacious discipline, monitoring, parental involvement with the child, and a positive parent–child relationship) as a mediator of associations between G2 and G3 externalizing problems. They found significant associations across generations in constructive parenting, and significant negative associations of constructive parenting by G2 and both G3 child difficult temperament and externalizing problems. Constructive parenting, however, was not a significant mediator of antisocial behavior from G2 to G3. Other studies did not test the mediating role of parenting in the transmission of externalizing behaviors directly but rather examined the associations across generations. Bailey et al. (2009) found continuity in both externalizing behaviors and parenting (monitoring and harsh discipline, examined separately) and reported significant continuity in each; they also found that G2 parental harsh discipline (but not parental monitoring) was associated with G3 externalizing behaviors over and above continuity effects. Overall, findings from studies examining indirect or mediational pathways of transmission emphasize the interdependence of transmission processes for parenting and problem behaviors across generations. Whereas significant associations indicate continuity in problem behaviors over generations and spark interest in mediators, the relative modesty of these associations suggests substantial discontinuity and leads to questions about moderators (i.e., interactive effects such as associations that depend on child gender; Thornberry, 2016).

Moderators of Intergenerational Associations

Moderation by Parent’s Partner

Longitudinal prospective intergenerational studies only have prospective data from the childhood or adolescence of one G2 parent (unless archival records data are used). Yet each child has two biological parents, receiving on average 50 percent of their genes from each parent and generally being exposed to some level of contextual risk and parenting experiences from each parent. There is robust evidence of assortative partnering by problem behaviors such that individuals showing higher levels of behaviors such as delinquency and substance use are likely to date and mate with partners who are also elevated on these behaviors compared with their same-sex peers (Boutwell, Beaver, & Barnes, 2012). Even so, there is enough variation in these behaviors and related contextual risk and parenting behaviors that the behavior of one parent toward the child may moderate the strength of intergenerational links in behaviors that are related to the second parent’s family. There is a further important process whereby such moderation takes place. In addition to effects on the child, there are social influences within couples that affect numerous aspects of their behaviors, including their persistence or desistance from risk behaviors and their parenting practices. Capaldi, Kim, and Owen (2008) found that even though women on average show lower levels of antisocial behavior than do men, men with female partners with higher levels of antisocial behavior compared with other women were more likely to persist in crime (indexed by arrests) in early adulthood than were other men, and it was even the case that men with no prior arrests were more likely to onset for arrests if their partner was higher in antisocial behavior.

Regarding partner influences on parenting, Capaldi, Pears, Kerr, and Owen (2008) examined a Dynamic Developmental Systems (DDS) model of intergenerational associations. The model posited an intergenerational association of the G1 parents’ poor discipline and the G2 young father’s poor discipline via the G2 father’s risk behavior, and additional nonspecific influences of the G2 mother’s risk behaviors as well as specific influences of her discipline practices. Findings indicated that the young fathers’ poor and harsh discipline practices were predicted by their partner’s problem behavior (substance use and antisocial behavior) as well as by the poor discipline the men experienced from their own parents. With these predictors in the model, there was no remaining significant effect of the men’s own risk behavior on their discipline practices. There is also evidence that the tendency for individuals who were harshly parented to parent their own children harshly is amelioModeration by G3 genderrated if their partner is a warm and supportive parent (Conger, Schofield, & Neppl, 2012). Additional aspects of partner behavior also moderate intergenerational associations in problematic parenting. In a study using observed interactions to examine the effect of a nurturing relationship with the romantic partner on continuity in harsh and abuse parenting, Conger, Schofield, Neppl, and Merrick (2013) found that partner warmth and positive communication appeared to disrupt such negative continuity.

Moderation by G3 Gender

Gender is a primary possible moderator of intergenerational associations relating to the development of conduct problems. Overall, boys show higher levels of conduct problems than do girls; in a review of six studies, the prevalence of conduct disorder at age 15 years was estimated at 10.6 percent of boys and 4.8 percent of girls, and the prevalence of oppositional defiant disorder was 4.8 percent of boys and 2.4 percent of girls (Maughan, Rowe, Messer, Goodman, & Meltzer, 2004). Despite these statistics, overall findings indicate that the developmental factors related to the emergence of such problems may be relatively similar across genders, although girls appear to have a later onset of more serious conduct problem behaviors (Keenan, Loeber, & Green, 1999). Even so, relatively few studies have been able to test for possible gender moderation of developmental factors related to conduct problems using prospective intergenerational approaches. There is some evidence that boys may be more vulnerable to some family risk factors. On the one hand, Pogarsky, Thornberry, and Lizotte (2006) found that adolescent motherhood had more negative effects for boys than for girls. On the other hand, some studies show more negative effects for girls. Kim et al. (2009) examined gender differences in intergenerational transmission of externalizing behaviors. They found that the G2 father’s externalizing behavior assessed during adolescence was predictive of the G3 children’s externalizing behavior at ages 2–3 years for girls but not for boys. The ways in which G3 child gender may moderate the intergenerational association of conduct problems warrants further attention.

Moderation by Age of Parent

The age of the parent is also a potential moderator of intergenerational associations. Two aspects of age are of importance in this context. First is the age of the parent at the birth of his or her first child. An early age at first birth has been found to be a risk factor for child problem behaviors (Brooks-Gunn & Chase-Lansdale, 1995). There are a number of possible reasons for this finding, one being that factors such as lower socioeconomic status (SES) and conduct problems predict a greater likelihood of teen parenthood (Woodward, Fergusson, & Horwood, 2006). Other reasons include detrimental effects on completion of education and job attainment for teen parents (Card & Wise, 1981). Second is the age of the parent at the birth of the focal child. An older age may mean that the parent has now matured out of some of the riskier behaviors of adolescence and young adulthood (e.g., delinquency, binge drinking) and thus is in a better position to pay positive attention to his or her child and to parenting. Belsky, Hancox, Sligo, and Poulton (2012) examined the issue of whether being an older parent at the focal child’s birth moderated the intergenerational transmission of parenting; they found that parental age was not a significant moderator but concluded that the issue should be examined further.

In a recent prospective study, Lizotte et al. (2015) examined whether delayed childbearing served as a protective factor in the intergenerational transmission of antisocial behavior and delinquency by moderating the link between parental violent delinquency during adolescence and child antisocial and delinquent behaviors. They found heterogeneity in longitudinal patterns of adolescent delinquency (i.e., showing different peak ages as well as differing levels over time). Patterns of either early adolescent high then declining, or of somewhat later starting but then high and chronic, parental violent delinquency predicted higher levels of delinquency and antisocial behavior for their 10-year-old offspring. Interactions of parental history of violent delinquency with parental age at first birth were significant for those parents who were characterized to have had high and chronic violence in adolescence, and the main effect of parental history of violent delinquency was no longer significant in predicting conduct problems in the offspring. Thus, for parents with such a history of violent offending who delayed childbearing until they were older, the impact of their violent history on their child was ameliorated. Further analyses indicated that a summary measure of six mediating risk variables that might account for the impact of prior violent delinquency history on the offspring (e.g., stressful life events, low income) accounted for some of the associations found, but the effect of delayed childbearing on reducing risk for conduct problems in the children remained.

Parent age may interact with other life events related to the G3 child, such that parents may respond differently to such events at different ages. Kerr, Capaldi, Owen, Wiesner, and Pears (2011) found that fatherhood can be a turning point in men’s crime and substance use trajectories. Even accounting for the effects of marriage—which is associated with lower levels of crime and less frequent substance use—following the birth of a first biological child men’s crime trajectories showed slope decreases, and tobacco and alcohol use trajectories showed level decreases. Thus, fatherhood was associated with both “bumping” trajectories of tobacco and alcohol use to lower levels and reducing rates of criminal behavior over time. The timing of first fatherhood was an important factor. The older men were when they became fathers, the greater the decreases were in crime and alcohol use. Thus, in these areas, the men appeared to benefit more from first fatherhood if they became fathers at a developmentally normative time (note that all men were 31 years of age or younger at the time of the study). However, it was the men who became fathers at a younger age who showed more dramatic slope decreases in tobacco and marijuana use. The issue of the timing of parenthood and the degree of transmission of problem behaviors raises a number of prevention possibilities. For example, fathers (and perhaps mothers) with conduct problem backgrounds appear motivated to improve their behavior around the time of their first child’s birth; such improvement may reduce intergenerational transmission of conduct problems.

Moderation by Historical Time

One important contextual difference in the experience of one generation compared with the next is historical time. Thus, even if the behaviors of first and subsequent generations are examined across identical developmental periods (e.g., adolescence), observed differences between generations could be attributable to cohort and/or period effects. Period effects denote changes over time in a construct of interest that influence individuals of all age groups concurrently and are often a result of major historical changes in social, cultural, and physical environments (e.g., the potential of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to change public opinions of race for persons of all ages). Cohort effects differ from period effects in that variation in a construct over time is assumed to affect groups of individuals who are a particular age during a historical event or share a common or life experience (e.g., marriage or birth of child) in the same time period (Yang & Land, 2006). Given that on average there are approximately 25 to 30 years between the births of a parent and his or her child, many possible physical differences (e.g., levels of poverty and nutrition for each generation, physically active versus sedentary occupations) as well as social differences exist. In particular, attitudes toward physical discipline, which have been shown to predict conduct problems, have changed over at least the past 50 years; less physical and harsh discipline is used with children currently, both at home and at school, than in former generations. In the late 1960s, 94 percent of parents viewed spanking as an acceptable form of regular discipline (Straus & Mathur, 1996), whereas by the 1990s acceptability had fallen to 61 percent of parents of young children (Yankelvich, 2000).

Norms about substance use and the availability of substances have also changed over time. Attitudes toward tobacco use have become more negative, and the prevalence of smoking has decreased overall (Johnston, O’Malley, Miech, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2014). Attitudes toward use of marijuana have shifted from relatively negative to more positive (Hasin et al., 2015), and availability is increasing due to policy changes toward legality (Caulkins, Hawken, Kilmer, & Kleiman, 2012). Indeed, recent changes in state recreational marijuana use law (RML) may introduce potentially important period and/or cohort effects to our study and others. For example, a cohort effect for RML could emerge (1) within G3, in which younger G3 adolescents may have more accepting views of and be more likely to use marijuana than older G3 adolescents who matured through early adolescence when use was illegal and perceived to be less acceptable or (2) across generations, in which G3 children who mature into adolescence post-RML may have more accepting views of and be more likely to use marijuana compared with their G2 parents who grew up in a time when use was illegal. Thus, both of these examples of cohort effects may reflect the notion that the likelihood of adolescent marijuana use is affected by different formative experiences for successive age groups in successive time periods (within or across generations) (Robertson, Gandini, & Boyle, 1999). Thus, it is important to consider period, cohort, and age effects (the last of which denote variation in a construct attributable to common developmental processes associated with particular ages or stages brought about by maturation, representing accumulated exposure and/or the physiological changes associated with aging). Although, age, period, and cohort effects can be viewed as complications to intergenerational designs, they also provide opportunities to understand the effects of “natural experiments” and to disentangle the effects of age (developmental timing), period, and cohort, and possible interactions thereof (e.g., parenting of one teenager before RML and of another one after it). Thus, if the study design, sample size, and statistical power permit, age, period, and cohort effects should be considered in intergenerational studies. Approaches to addressing these issues range from consideration of possible unaccounted for effects in interpreting findings to direct modeling of such effects through the use of hierarchical age-period-cohort models (Yang, 2006; Yang & Land, 2006, 2008).

Overall, this discussion of potential moderators of intergenerational associations indicates that thoughtful attention should be paid to such effects when conducting studies, testing intergenerational models, and interpreting findings.

Theoretical Explanations of Intergenerational Associations

Gene-Based Theories

A number of studies examine genetic effects related to temperament dimensions posited to involve vulnerability to conduct problems. Genetic influences may operate via dimensions of temperament that relate to brain activity and neural pathways (Hill, 2002). The Behavioral Activation System and the Behavioral Inhibition System are hypothesized to affect individual responses to environmental stimuli that offer reward or punishment (Gray, 1987). The activation system is posited to facilitate approach responses to likely rewards via the brain dopaminergic system, and the inhibition system to repress behaviors likely to be punished via the noradrenergic and serotonergic systems (Rogeness & McClure, 1996). Through these pathways, significant genetic vulnerabilities have been found for known risk factors for conduct problems, including low behavioral inhibition, related both to impulsivity (Kruesi et al., 1990; Moffitt et al., 1997; Rogeness et al., 1984) and to hyperactivity (Thapar, Holmes, Poulton, & Harrington, 1999). In addition, interactive effects between environmental risk and genetic vulnerability for conduct problems have been found (Caspi et al., 2002). However, findings regarding the associations of candidate genes and neurotransmitter levels and activity often do not replicate consistently, and effects may differ by age (Hill, 2002). Genetic explanations generally posit a complex pattern of heritability for most problem behaviors, involving the effects of variants of multiple genes in some additive or interactive combination (Simonoff, 2001).

Socially-Based Theories

Essentially all the social-based theories that are proposed by researchers conducting studies with prospective three-generational designs are based on a lifespan developmental or life-course perspective (Elder, 1985). Conger and colleagues (Conger & Donnellan, 2007; Schofield et al., 2011) have focused particularly on the effects of SES stressors and propose an interactionist model of development in which the association of SES and development involves a dynamic interplay whereby SES influences development (social causation) and individual characteristics affect SES (social selection). Schofield et al. (2011) found support for this model across generations, as positive adolescent characteristics in G2 (e.g., social competence) predicted later SES, parenting, and family characteristics that were related to the positive development of G3. Thornberry and colleagues use a conceptual framework based in interactional theory as an explanation for antisocial behaviors (Thornberry, 1987; Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant et al., 2003); their framework centers on interdependent or linked lives across the life course and focuses on behavior as shaped by an ongoing system of social relations with others. Bailey and colleagues (Bailey et al., 2013) take a life-course and developmental-ecological approach to examining intergenerational links in substance use. They tested alternative hypotheses of the association of adult drug use disorder and poor parenting. First, they argued, early adult substance use disrupts the transition to adulthood, leading to poor adult functioning and parenting practices. Second, relatively enduring individual traits related to personality and behavior lead to both substance use and poor parenting. Third, poor parenting and disrupted family processes during adolescence may lead to both substance use problems and poor parenting. Findings supported the parent personality risk factor model; specifically, parent negative emotionality accounted for the association between early adult drug use disorder and poor parenting, and also predicted conduct problems in the G3 child. Limited support was found for the disrupted transition to adulthood hypothesis, but not for the adolescent family process model.

One of the major recent and relatively specific theories regarding intergenerational transmission of risk and problem behaviors that integrates social and genetic influences relates to phenotypic plasticity (Belsky & Pluess, 2013; Ellis, Boyce, Belsky, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & Van IJzendoorn, 2011). This gene–environment interaction theory posits that there are individual differences in developmental plasticity or sensitivity to environments, and that whether these differences are beneficial or detrimental depends on the environment. Thus, in a harsh environment (e.g., abusive parenting), those with greater developmental plasticity will be at a disadvantage compared with their less malleable peers, as they will suffer more detrimental effects of the harsh environment. The key aspect of the theory that differentiates it from other theories suggesting that some individuals are more sensitive to harsh environments (i.e., diathesis-stress models) is that developmentally plastic individuals are also posited to profit more from beneficial environments than their less sensitive peers. Thus, these individuals do not have “bad genes”; on the contrary, with particularly consistent and nurturing parenting, it is posited that these individuals will have the most beneficial life outcomes (see also Reiss, Leve, & Neiderhiser [2013] for a discussion of four forms of gene–environment interaction).

Belsky and colleagues provide some evidence for developmental plasticity theory. Hartman and Belsky (2015) identified two behavioral patterns as particularly related to increased developmental plasticity—namely, temperament/negative emotionality and a highly sensitive personality—and presented evidence that children with more difficult temperaments during infancy had the most behavioral problems in first grade if they experienced low-quality parenting, but the least problems if they experienced high-quality parenting compared with other children (Bradley & Corwyn, 2008). However, not all findings are supportive of this theory. Belsky et al. (2015) tested whether there was genetic moderation of the effects of early maternal sensitivity on aspects of development, including social emotional, in early childhood, and whether the findings were consistent with more general-risk vulnerability (i.e., the diathesis-stress model) or with differential sensitivity or plasticity. The study evaluated models involving 12 candidate “plasticity” genes. Findings indicated that maternal sensitivity was a consistent predictor of child functioning, but the candidate genes did not show many main effects or show interaction effects with maternal sensitivity. Thus, rather than evidence for developmental plasticity, the costs of insensitive mothering tended to be similar across children with differential genetic plasticity.

Our theoretical approach, the Dynamic Developmental Systems model, is based in a life-course perspective, and focuses particularly on the importance of social influences across the lifespan, yet also encompasses physiological factors including genetic risk for problem behavior and selection into environments that support it (Capaldi, Kerr, Eddy, & Tiberio, 2016; Capaldi, Kim, & Pears, 2009; Washburn, Capaldi, Kim, & Feingold, 2014). Within the DDS framework, our work has a new focus on developmental congruence of intergenerational associations in problem behaviors. The DDS approach emphasizes the interplay involving continuous feedback among biologic systems (e.g., genetic influences; Simonoff, 2001), individual characteristics (e.g., temperament/personality; Ganiban, Ulbricht, Saudino, Reiss, & Neiderhiser, 2011), contextual factors (e.g., neighborhood and family resources), socialization experiences (especially within the family of origin, e.g., coercive processes), social influences particularly from close associates relevant to the individual’s developmental stage including peers in adolescence (Dishion, Andrews, & Crosby, 1995; Poulin, Kiesner, Pedersen, & Dishion, 2011), and romantic partners in young adulthood (Capaldi, Kim, & Owen, 2008) in the development and course of problem behaviors. The approach is based in developmental-contextual and lifespan approaches that emphasize the interaction between the individual’s prior dispositions and learning and the environments in which s/he is born, placed, or selects (Cairns & Cairns, 1995; Caspi & Elder, 1988; Dishion & Patterson, 1997; Hetherington & Baltes, 1988; Rutter, 1989). To date, given the available data and sample size for the Oregon Youth Study-Three Generational Study, intergenerational tests have centered primarily on social and contextual transitions in addition to direct effects.

A key aspect of the approach, as applied in our prior work (Capaldi, Stoolmiller, Kim, & Yoerger, 2009), is the importance of both general and outcome-specific systems and risks (Kendler, Gardner, & Dick, 2011; Zucker, Boyd, & Howard, 1995). This general versus specific-risk perspective can take at least two forms: distinguishing risks for the general class of problem behaviors (delinquency, sexual risk taking, substance use) from risks for a specific problem behavior or outcome (e.g., teenage pregnancy), or disentangling general-risk factors for any substance use from those that are substance specific (e.g., marijuana).

Regarding intergenerational transmission of substance use, many of the mechanisms may be general rather than substance specific. For example, familial history of alcoholism is related to higher impulsivity and lower agreeableness in children (Chassin, Flora, & King, 2004)—the origins and developmental consequences of which are not specific to alcohol abuse. Further, genetic risk for substance use and dependence overlap considerably across drug classes (Kendler et al., 2012). Similarly, low parental monitoring is a powerful risk factor for problem behavior, but one that is likely to be general rather than problem-specific (e.g., alcohol only). Finally, parental consumption of any psychoactive substance involves parental modeling of substance use; thus, such effects may not be substance specific.

At the same time, there are reasons to speculate that some risks may be substance specific. For example, parental abuse of one substance (e.g., alcohol) means that adolescents could easily access that substance, but not necessarily others (e.g., tobacco), in the home. Additionally, parents also model the social and emotional contexts of their substance use (e.g., to make social gatherings more fun or to manage negative affect), some of which may be substance specific. Finally, the legal status and rigidity of social norms regarding the use of some but not other substances may influence whether risks are general or substance specific. For example, parental communication of liberal norms regarding teenage use of alcohol may confer risk for child alcohol abuse, but that risk may not generalize to an increased likelihood of prescription medication abuse.

We have examined general and problem-specific intergenerational risk models in a number of papers on substance use. For example, Washburn and Capaldi (2014) examined influences on growth in marijuana use for G2 boys during high school years. General developmental risk pathway predictors—including G1 parental monitoring and boys’ depressive symptoms, antisocial behavior, and deviant peer associations—were examined, along with the outcome-specific social influence pathway factors of parent marijuana use and peer substance use. Findings indicated contributions from both general pathway risk (i.e., antisocial behavior/deviant peer association, parental monitoring) and a contribution from outcome-specific risks, which varied by outcome (i.e., parent marijuana use was particularly associated with use versus nonuse of marijuana, whereas peer substance use was associated with growth in use). In another study, we found that G2 fathers’ alcohol use during adolescence predicted G3 alcohol use by age 13 years and that this path was not fully explained by externalizing behaviors (marking the general-risk pathway) in either generation (Kerr, Capaldi, Pears & Owen, 2012). Of note, G2 parents’ adult alcohol use and G3 use each were associated with low monitoring, G2 liberal use norms, encouragement of G3 alcohol use, and G3 exposure to intoxicated adults; yet, the only significant mediating path in the model (which was controlled for the general-problem pathway) was between mothers’ alcohol use and G3 use via greater G3 exposure to intoxicated adults. This mediated effect lends support to social learning theory models, suggesting a robust, mediated pathway; beyond increased risk for child alcohol use attributable to general-problem behaviors, greater exposure to intoxicated adults is a mechanism through which the intergenerational transmission of alcohol use occurs. Thus, findings from both studies supported the importance of both general-problem pathways and outcome-specific risk factors, as both main and mediated effects, in the intergenerational transmission of substance use.

Consideration of general versus outcome-specific risks helps bring conceptual clarity to questions regarding intergenerational associations of problem behaviors. Conduct problems in childhood are a risk factor for the early onset of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use (Dishion, Capaldi, & Yoerger, 1999)—as well as for a number of other problem behaviors, including delinquency (Dishion & Patterson, 2006), sexual risk behavior (Capaldi, Crosby, & Stoolmiller, 1996), dating violence (Capaldi, Knoble et al., 2012), and conduct problems or antisocial behavior associated across generations (Capaldi, Pears et al., 2012). Thus, their influence should always be considered in the development of the broader range of problem behaviors.

In recent work, we extended this approach by considering intergenerational transmission of marijuana use through substance-specific risk pathways (Kerr et al., 2015). We used survival analyses to predict earlier onset of G3 marijuana use from G2 marijuana use during adolescence and to determine whether any effects were mediated by risks posited to be general (associations with deviant peers and low parental monitoring) or problem specific (peers’ marijuana use, exposure to adult use, and low parental disapproval of G3 use). Importantly, by controlling for G3 alcohol use onset (prior or concurrent), we also modeled the extent to which these paths were substance specific (i.e., to G3 marijuana use onset beyond risk attributable to onset of alcohol use). We found that G2 marijuana use during adolescence was associated with the circumstances proposed to confer risk to G3 offspring, and many of the risk factors were indeed associated with G3 alcohol and marijuana use. However, few of these risks were found to function as substance-specific mediators. Specific effects need further consideration as G3 matures through adolescence.

In another elaboration of these models, we examined intergenerational effects specific to a particular type of substance versus crossover risk effects from parental use of other substances (Capaldi, Tiberio, Kerr, & Pears, 2016). A further key aspect of this study was that risk for onset of alcohol use in adolescence from both paternal and maternal use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana was examined, whereas many studies only examine risk from paternal use (e.g., Dobkin, Tremblay, & Sacchitelle, 1997). Findings indicated that only mothers’ but not fathers’ alcohol use was directly associated with children’s age of onset of alcohol use. Children’s age of onset was also predicted by mothers’ tobacco use and by the interaction of fathers’ marijuana use and alcohol use. These effects were observed when controlling for parent education, child gender, and child antisocial behavior.

Developmental Congruence

A relatively new focus of the Three Generational Study is on testing a theory of intergenerational developmental congruence of the development of conduct problems, substance use, and other health-risking behaviors (Capaldi, Pears, Kerr, & Tiberio, 2015). As used in geometry, congruence refers to figures of a similar shape and size. We have adapted this term to refer to the hypothesis that the shapes or patterns of problem behavior will show similarity across generations (i.e., ages at initiation or onset of and patterns of growth). This hypothesis is generated by the theory that genetic and temperamental factors increase an individual’s risk when these factors are expressed at sensitive developmental periods (Witt, 2010). Thus, the timing of vulnerability (e.g., to deviant peer influences) is expected to be similar across generations. Developmental similarity also may be due to continuities in social risk context (Capaldi et al., 2016; Gavin, Hill, Hawkins, & Maas, 2011; Lipman, Georgiades, & Boyle, 2011; Scaramella, Neppl, Ontai, & Conger, 2008; Schofield et al., 2011; Thornberry et al., 2009) and family mechanisms, such as parenting (Capaldi et al., 2003; Kerr et al., 2009). We are currently conducting the first tests of this hypothesis.

Challenges with Conducting Intergenerational Studies

When researchers are interpreting their findings, they need to consider that prospective intergenerational studies pose a number of methodological challenges. Although it is not within the scope of this article to fully elaborate on the challenges involved in conducting intergenerational studies, we will summarize some of the major issues. First and foremost, whereas traditional longitudinal studies of child development start by collecting a sample of children who are all approximately the same age (e.g., all in kindergarten) and accelerated longitudinal studies collect several cohorts (e.g., kindergarten, Grade 2, Grade 4), the third generation in an intergenerational study is born at any time within the wide fertility span of the G2 parent (approximately 25 years for women and even longer for men). Even when studies restrict how much of this span they cover, this makes for a lengthy study (e.g., our G2 was recruited at age 10 years in the mid-1980s); furthermore, such restrictions can introduce sample bias (see second challenge). For feasibility reasons, some intergenerational studies assess children of different ages within the same assessment year, with a tradeoff being a less developmentally sensitive measurement (e.g. parental monitoring and drug use in 10- to 19-year-olds). Other studies such as ours have continually enrolled G3 children, who then participated in assessments timed according to each child’s development. Here the tradeoffs are the pragmatic challenges of maintaining a staff trained in all of the developmentally sensitive assessment batteries and an even longer duration of data collection (e.g., analysis of marijuana use onset cannot occur until sufficient numbers of G3 are old enough to have participated in a drug use assessment).

A second challenge is that the timing of the births of the third generation are associated with G2 antisocial behavior. Thus, teen parents show higher levels of conduct problems than those giving birth at later ages (Woodward, Fergusson, & Horwood, 2006). In addition, there may be period and/or cohort effects within G3 as they are born over a lengthy period. If sample sizes by cohorts are sufficient, age-period-cohort models may be used to estimate each of these effects; if period and/or cohort effects are not directly modeled (i.e., the research uses age as the time metric in the model regardless of when children were born), at the very least these issues should be considered as limitations when interpreting the findings.

Third, in general, it is not feasible to assess both G2 parents prospectively prior to their partnering and birth of G3 (use of official records such as arrests would be one exception). Thus, information on the prior development of one G2 parent is missing or retrospective. Fourth, the sampling and prospective measurement design decisions made at the beginning of the study are based on initial research questions of interest. The sampling approach—such as the initial focus on primarily Caucasian, at-risk boys in the Oregon Youth Study (G2 of our study) and historical events that have impacted other cohorts (e.g., economic recession)—can introduce longstanding generalizability implications. Early measurement design decisions make it difficult to pursue new directions (e.g., social media; new drugs of abuse). Although these issues apply to all longitudinal studies, in the case of three generational studies the time and financial investment in the cohorts can be many decades and dollars deep. On balance, studies that included comprehensive measurements are the most flexible and useful for testing intergenerational questions, and generalizability concerns are assuaged by replications in other intergenerational samples. For a further discussion of design issues including longitudinal versus intergenerational designs, see Thornberry (2009). Despite these challenges, three-generational data are very valuable owing to the fully prospective designs of such studies. At this time, they represent the strongest design for testing the degree of association across generations in conduct problems and related issues. Findings from three-generational designs will be further strengthened if sample size permits the estimation of age, period, and cohort effects, thus ruling out each of these alternative explanations for the observed changes in behaviors of individuals across generations and within each generation’s lifespan.


Prospective intergenerational studies have moved the study of the development of conduct problems forward on several fronts. First, they have provided a new structure (as well as high-quality data) for consideration of the etiology of conduct problems that, along with advances in genetic approaches, have pushed forward theory development regarding intergenerational transmission and etiology. Second, they have provided evidence of intergenerational transmission of conduct problems and of known etiological factors for them, including parenting behaviors. A crucial aspect of their contribution is that evidence of intergenerational transmission is robust across differing samples and measurement (Conger et al., 2009; Thornberry, Hops et al., 2003). Third, their findings of relatively modest associations have highlighted the importance of considering mediational pathways and moderational effects on intergenerational transmission, as well as of differential expression of behaviors at differing stages of development (i.e., age effects, such as childhood versus adolescence). Fourth, their approaches and findings have reinforced the importance of thinking of human development and change of behaviors, including problem behaviors, as interconnected parts of a much larger continuous process that accumulates across the course of one’s entire lifespan. Findings of the studies underscore the complexity of the development of problem behaviors and of the processes by which they may be transmitted to parent and child. Future work should continue to test hypotheses regarding aspects of these complex processes and refine the related theories. Finally, long-term longitudinal studies of childhood risks for adult psychopathology often conclude by asking readers to imagine the cascading lifespan implications of social policy and public health interventions. We suggest that this big picture is actually too narrow. Intergenerational findings show that prevention has the potential to benefit not only the lives of the targeted individuals, but also those of their future partners and children.


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