Testosterone’s Family Ties: Hormone-linked problems reflect parent-child bond

Testosterone has a public reputation as the hormone that turns men into boisterous louts at best, and violent criminals at worst.

New evidence is challenging that. Witness a new study that finds no link between testosterone concentrations and either delinquent behavior or depression in children and teenagers of both sexes–that is, if relations with parents are close.

The behavior and mood problems traditionally blamed on testosterone most often appear in boys and girls with poor parental relations, says sociologist Alan Booth of Pennsylvania State University in State College. In the new study, high-testosterone boys who related well to their mothers engaged in far fewer delinquent acts than low-testosterone boys who got on poorly with their mothers, Booth and his colleagues report in the January Developmental Psychology.

“Children’s testosterone levels create behavioral predispositions that get modified by the quality of parent-child relationships,” Booth theorizes.

As a hormone that shapes masculine physical features, testosterone occurs in small amounts in females and much larger amounts in males. Among men, many studies have associated high testosterone concentrations with aggressive and risk-taking behaviors and low testosterone concentrations with depression. However, some studies have failed to find links between men’s testosterone levels and behavior or mood problems.

Only a few studies have addressed this issue in women or in children.

The new investigation by Booth’s group focused on 400 middle-class families in Pennsylvania. All the parents and 608 children, ages 6 to 18, were interviewed and provided saliva samples for testosterone analysis. The researchers defined a good parent-child relationship as one in which the parent knew about and approved of the child’s activities, the parent participated in activities with the child, and the child reported feeling close to the parent.

An intriguing sex difference emerged for youngsters with poor parental relationships.

Among these boys of all ages, those with high testosterone concentrations were most prone to delinquency, illicit-drug use, and other risky behaviors. Yet, among girls, risky behaviors most often appeared in those between ages 10 and 14 and with low testosterone concentrations.

Moreover, low testosterone concentrations were linked to symptoms of depression in boys of all ages who related poorly to their mothers. The same association emerged for girls only between ages 14 and 18 who had a poor relationship with their fathers.

Reasons for these sex disparities are unclear, Booth says. Larger studies should examine testosterone’s link to behavior at various ages, he adds.

Besides revisiting testosterone’s bad reputation, researchers need to probe for beneficial behaviors linked to the hormone, remarks sociologist Allan Mazur of Syracuse (N.Y.) University. “Under the right social conditions, high testosterone levels may help to produce our leaders,” Mazur says. “No one has studied this possibility.”


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.