Psychology of Parenting
The Hypothesis of Differential Susceptibility and the Effects of Parenting

The Hypothesis of Differential Susceptibility and the Effects of Parenting

Children react differently (Differential Susceptibility) to environmental variables such as parental style. According to recent research, some childrens are more influenced than others from the start. They are born more vulnerable to both positive and negative environmental influences. The Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis summarises this phenomenon.

This post may contain affiliate links. Full disclosure here.

Want to learn how to get your kids to listen without nagging, yelling or losing control?
–>check out this free parenting class<–

What is Differential Susceptibility

Differential sensitivity to environmental impact highlights that certain people are disproportionately more vulnerable to negative and positive environmental influences. It explains why people react differently (Differential Susceptibility) to the same ostensibly identical situation.

Children differ in terms of whether or not they are impacted by their surroundings. That is, children’s sensitivity to parental influence varies.

Individuals with heightened sensitivity are more flexible or plastic. They are more sensitive to both hardship and positive childhood experiences. This increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli can lead to long-term developmental abnormalities. ​

The biology of the nervous system contributes to susceptibility to environmental effects. However, events throughout the early years and early child care and neurobiology have a role in developing individual variations in susceptibility.

Diathesis Stress Model vs Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis

The Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis varies from the Diathesis Stress Model in that sensitive individuals are not only more vulnerable to negative situations and more malleable to both positive and negative environments.

Decades of studies show that children who are exposed to environmental adversity, such as child abuse, unsupportive parents, or unpleasant life experiences, are more likely to develop psychopathology. Under those conditions, however, not all children would acquire psychiatric or physical problems.

For over 30 years, the Diathesis Stress Model (also known as the Dual Risk Model) has dominated the causes of this phenomenon, claiming that children with ‘difficult’ temperaments or who carry certain risk alleles, such as the s allele, are more likely to sustain maladaptive development when exposed to stressors. Some people are inclined to be more sensitive to particular health issues or psychiatric illnesses than others.

The concept, which was initially presented in the 1970s, explains why some people are sensitive to the negative impacts of adversity while others are unaffected and more robust.

However, psychologists have discovered that this paradigm is generally inadequate. It is difficult to provide a persuasive argument for why this is a desirable human feature.

This issue is addressed by the Differential Susceptibility model.

The differential susceptibility hypothesis states that certain people are more sensitive to both positive and negative circumstances, for better or worse. As a result, the vulnerable qualities are not liabilities, but rather plasticity traits. These folks can gain the most from a supportive and enlightening atmosphere.

The Origin of Developmental Theories

From an evolutionary standpoint, both helpful and unfavourable childhood environments have been a part of the human experience throughout history. Differential sensitivity allows humans to adapt to both types of environments.

DST and BSCT are two distinct ideas that have been developed to explain the presence of individual susceptibility to the environment.

BSCT emphasizes the function of nurture in natural selection, whereas DST addresses the role of nature. Although these two ideas are distinct, they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they all agree that sensitivity to parenting influence is a desirable evolutionary neurodevelopmental phenomenon in human development.


Jay Belsky of the University of California, Davis, proposed DST, which implies that developmental plasticity is based on evolutionary biology and natural selection.

Because parents could not know for definite what parenting techniques would maximize children’s survival, it is evolutionary advantageous that childrens, particularly within a family, differ in their susceptibility to both detrimental and good effects of parental influence. In human evolution, differential susceptibility is considered a bet-hedging technique.

If a parenting impact is shown to be counterproductive, the less vulnerable children will be less affected. However, if a parenting approach is proved to be effective, the more flexible kids will benefit the most.

This genetic diversity enables the transmission of genes that are adaptive to the environment. As a result, unlike other animals, humans can adapt to vastly diverse temperatures all across the world.


BSCT, suggested by Boyce of the University of California, Berkeley, and Ellis of the University of Arizona, proposes that natural selection permits a childrens stress reactivity to grow adaptively in response to their upbringing.

Children’s chances of survival and ultimate reproduction improve (growth mindset) in stressful situations if they acquire enhanced sensitivity and attentiveness to threat. Childhood adversity adaption is defined as “making the best of a poor situation.”

Increased responsiveness, on the other hand, helps childrens to adjust reproductively relevant processes and behaviours such as development, status, fertility, and offspring quality appropriately in supportive and enriched settings.

Differential susceptibility under the BSCT regime is the consequence of the human stress-response system adjusting to the individual’s particular environment beginning early in life.

Susceptibility is thus more of a developmental regulatory approach than a vulnerability or risk factor, even if those tactics could be damaging to the long-term welfare of the individual or society as a whole under normal circumstances.

Differential Susceptibility Markers

The differential susceptibility theory has shed a great deal of insight on why children respond differently to the same environment or parenting style.

Several possible differential susceptibility variables, known as plasticity indicators, have been found by researchers. When interacting with the environment, these indicators indicate the differential susceptibility nature.

Plasticity indicators or variables are classified into three types: phenotypic, endophenotypic, and genetic. Here are some instances of these indicators and their interactions with Parenting and Environment.


Difficult temperament is described as having limited inhibitory control, a high dispositional frustration level, a high activity level and difficulty to soothe. It is a phenotypic characteristic that indicates the vulnerable nature of the childrens behaviour.

Researchers examined the degrees of externalizing behaviour issues in a sample of 16 to 19-month-old boys with challenging temperaments in one study. After 6 months, the boys whose moms had strong maternal sensitivity and used negative control seldom had the least rise in problem behaviour. Those who had insensitive moms who leaned largely on negative control saw the greatest rise in behavioural problems. 

Every parent wishes for a child with a calm disposition. These babies sleep better, eat better, have fewer tantrums, and listen better. When a kid is exposed to poor parenting, having a challenging temperament predicts poor results. It also predicts better results if the kid is reared with competent parenting techniques.


Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) and Cortisol reactivity are both endophenotypic (genetically connected factor “within”) determinants of vulnerability.

Cortisol is associated with impulsivity, poor self-control, peer rejection, and aggressiveness, whereas RSA is associated with an individual’s ability to regulate stress. These two indicators assess stress reactivity, which in turn assesses biological sensitivity to the environment.

Researchers discovered that children with high biological sensitivity, as assessed by RSA and cortisol levels, had the highest levels of behaviour issues in negative home environments, but the highest levels of competence in good family environments in a study of 338 children aged 5 to 6.


In the gene-environment interaction, 5-HTTLPR is a genotype factor (denoted as GxE). It is caused by a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene region.

Positive emotions, according to neuroscientists, are protective against psychiatric disorders. Children who experience a lot of pleasant emotions are more resilient and have stronger self-regulation. Low levels have been related to depression and other psychiatric problems.

Researchers have discovered that young individuals who have two functioning copies of the S’S’ 5-HTTLPR mutation are genetically predisposed to poor parenting. When raised in supportive parental situations, they exhibit considerably higher levels of happy feeling and much lower levels of positive emotion when raised in unsupportive circumstances.

Those with at least one copy of the L 5-HTTLPR gene, on the other hand, demonstrated rather constant levels of pleasant mood in both supportive and unsupportive parental situations. These data support the differential susceptibility theory.

Differential Susceptibility and Parenting

The question of whether, how, and to what degree parenting influences a kid’s development has long piqued the attention of developmental psychologists and child psychology experts.

Although several studies consistently indicate the impacts of parenting on child development, the validity of these correlational studies is debatable in terms of cause and effect. The topic of why a common environment in the form of parenting cannot always explain the differences in developmental outcomes between siblings remains unanswered.

Furthermore, researchers regularly find that parenting identical twins is more comparable than parenting fraternal twins, and that parenting two biological sibling is more similar than parenting two adoptive children.

The discovery of neurobiological vulnerability has offered a much-needed additional viewpoint on the topic of whether parenting matters.

While we cannot change our biological nature as parents, we can create safe and supportive situations in which even the most sensitive children can thrive.

As a consequence, parental impacts on a childrens development are “neither as clear as earlier studies claimed nor as minor as behaviour-genetics experts assert.” ​

A common childhood environment can give comparable experiences, but it can impact individual children differently, including those who are not affected at all. When this occurs, the shared-environment component of behaviour-genetic research is transformed into a non–shared environment component.


  1. 1.Ellis BJ, Boyce WT, Belsky J, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van Ijzendoorn MH. Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary–neurodevelopmental theory. Dev Psychopathol. Published online January 24, 2011:7-28. doi:10.1017/s0954579410000611
  2. 2.Belsky J. Differential Susceptibility to Rearing Influence: An Evolutionary Hypothesis and Some Evidence. In: Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development. Guilford Press; 2005:139–163.
  3. 3.Boyce WT. Differential Susceptibility of the Developing Brain to Contextual Adversity and Stress. Neuropsychopharmacol. Published online September 22, 2015:142-162. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.294
  4. 4.Lutha S, Cicchetti D. The construct of resilience: implications for interventions and social policies. Dev Psychopathol. 2000;12(4):857-885. doi:10.1017/s0954579400004156
  5. 5.Shonkoff JP, Boyce WT, McEwen BS. Neuroscience, Molecular Biology, and the Childhood Roots of Health Disparities. JAMA. Published online June 3, 2009:2252. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.754
  6. 6.Walker EF, Diforio D. Schizophrenia: A neural diathesis-stress model. Psychological Review. Published online 1997:667-685. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.104.4.667
  7. 7.Belsky J, Pluess M. Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2009:885-908. doi:10.1037/a0017376
  8. 8.Belsky J. Theory Testing, Effect-Size Evaluation, and Differential Susceptibility to Rearing Influence: The Case of Mothering and Attachment. Child Development. Published online August 1997:598. doi:10.2307/1132110
  9. 9.Belsky J, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van IJzendoorn MH. For Better and For Worse. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Published online December 2007:300-304. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00525.x
  10. 10.BOYCE WT, ELLIS BJ. Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary–developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Develop Psychopathol. Published online May 12, 2005. doi:10.1017/s0954579405050145
  11. 11.Ellis BJ, Boyce WT. Differential susceptibility to the environment: Toward an understanding of sensitivity to developmental experiences and context. Dev Psychopathol. Published online 2011:1-5. doi:10.1017/s095457941000060x
  12. 12.Hinde RA, Stevenson-Hinde J. Attachment: Biological, Cultural and Individual Desiderata. Human Development. Published online 1990:62-72. doi:10.1159/000276503
  13. 13.van Aken C, Junger M, Verhoeven M, van Aken MAG, Deković M. The interactive effects of temperament and maternal parenting on toddlers’ externalizing behaviours. Inf Child Develop. Published online 2007:553-572. doi:10.1002/icd.529
  14. 14.Morris AS, Silk JS, Steinberg L, Sessa FM, Avenevoli S, Essex MJ. Temperamental Vulnerability and Negative Parenting as Interacting Predictors of Child Adjustment. J Marriage and Family. Published online May 2002:461-471. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2002.00461.x
  15. 15.Kochanska G, Aksan N, Joy ME. Children’s fearfulness as a moderator of parenting in early socialization: Two longitudinal studies. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2007:222-237. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.43.1.222
  16. 16.Obradović J, Bush NR, Stamperdahl J, Adler NE, Boyce WT. Biological Sensitivity to Context: The Interactive Effects of Stress Reactivity and Family Adversity on Socioemotional Behavior and School Readiness. Child Development. Published online January 2010:270-289. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01394.x
  17. 17.Hankin BL, Nederhof E, Oppenheimer CW, et al. Differential susceptibility in youth: evidence that 5-HTTLPR x positive parenting (like inductive discipline)is associated with positive affect ‘for better and worse.’ Transl Psychiatry. Published online October 2011:e44-e44. doi:10.1038/tp.2011.44
  18. 18.Collins WA, Maccoby EE, Steinberg L, Hetherington EM, Bornstein MH. Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist. Published online 2000:218-232. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.2.218

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.