It’s Nature AND Nurture: Epigenetics

by Jendi Coursey

  • Posted on October 8, 2019

  • Blog

Turns out, we’ve been asking the wrong question to find out what influences who we become. It’s not nature or nurture; it’s nature and nurture.

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child:

During development, the DNA that makes up our genes accumulates chemical marks that determine how much or little of the genes is expressed. This collection of chemical marks is known as the “epigenome.” The different experiences children have rearrange those chemical marks. This explains why genetically identical twins can exhibit different behaviors, skills, health, and achievement.

This also explains why it is so important to intervene in a young child’s life to help heal trauma. Research shows that we can prevent or even reverse negative chemical changes in the brain and stop them from becoming a permanent epigenetic signature. How? By helping children form supportive, responsive relationships with caregivers that reduce stress and help children’s brains develop in productive, positive, and resilient ways.

If you think of genes as the possible pathways for development, the epigenome is like a series of traffic lights. Will you stop or go, turn right or left? The destination isn’t determined by the possible paths, but by the steps each person takes.

When we are born, we have all the brain cells (neurons) we will ever have, but they are not yet connected (through synapses). From birth to five years old, our brains grow incredibly quickly. At birth, our brains are about a quarter of the size of an adult brain. During the first year of life, our brains double in size; and by age five, our brains are 90 percent of their fully mature size. During this time, we create about a million new synapses every second, more than at any other time in life and the single most important influence on brain development is having loving relationships with responsive, dependable adults.

Harvard University says:

Experiences very early in life, when the brain is developing most rapidly, cause epigenetic adaptations that influence whether, when, and how genes release their instructions for building future capacity for health, skills, and resilience.

That’s why it’s crucial to provide supportive and nurturing experiences for young children in the earliest years.

At the Family Nurturing Center, we offer programs that build strong bonds between parents and their children and that address the social determinants of health, because we know that the absence of things like stable housing, adequate nutrition, academic opportunities, preventative health care, and mental health support puts all other aspects of a child’s well-being at risk.

We are here to help parents learn to be the nurturing, supportive, dependable people their children need them to be.


About the Author


Jendi Coursey