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Ghosts from the past: Consequences of Adolescent Peer Experiences across social contexts and generations

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CAPE (Ghosts from the past: Consequences of Adolescent Peer Experiences across social contexts and generations)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-01-31

Multiple studies have described long-term negative consequences when adolescents’ peer relationships are dysfunctional but so far, this research has focused on psychological and behavioural development, neglecting findings from attachment and social learning theory and research that interpersonal experiences can be transmitted across social contexts and across generations. In detail, we know that adolescent peer experiences are central to romantic development through providing opportunities to meet dating partners and by enabling young people to develop the skills that are needed to navigate romantic relationships. However, studies thus far focused on a limited set of romantic relationship facets and rarely covered both adolescence and early adulthood. Neither have other adult relationships – such as friendships – been studied systematically, although it is highly likely that adolescent peer experiences are important precursors of adult friendships. Moreover, traits, behaviours, and relationship experiences are partially passed on from one generation to the next. It may well be that young people’s peer experiences also have their origins in the developmental histories of their parents. This assumption challenges our current understanding of social development and necessitates that the study of antecedents of specific peer experiences needs to go much further back in time and should zoom in on the pathways that carry this transmission. If intergenerational continuity in specific peer experiences is detected, we next need to elucidate whether environmental or genetic mechanisms drive this transmission.

The overall objective of CAPE is to apply theoretical assumptions and empirical findings from other fields to the study of peer relationships and their consequences across contexts and generations. Consequences of adolescent peer experiences across contexts need to be studied systematically to understand whether, how, and why peer experiences exert such a long-term influence on psychological health and wellbeing. Studying the consequences of adolescent peer experiences across generations involves multiple disciplines and is challenging yet at the forefront of developmental research and might be a gamechanger to our understanding of social development.

In CAPE, we investigate whether and how peer experiences are transmitted a) to adult friendships and romantic relationships, and b) across generations, i.e. passed on to offspring, to shed light on how the “ghosts from peer past” affect young adults’ relationships and their children’s early social development. We examine longitudinal links between adolescent peer and young adult close relationships and test whether parents’ peer experiences affect offspring’s social development and peer experiences. Psychological functioning, parenting, temperament, genetic, and epigenetic transmission mechanisms are examined separately and in interplay, which 1) goes far beyond the current state-of-the-art in social development research, and 2) significantly broadens current bio-socially oriented work on genetic effects in the peer context. We utilise data from the TRAILS ( cohort that has been followed since age 11. To study intergenerational transmission, the TRAILS NEXT ( sample of participants with children is extended until offspring are seven years old. Next to quantitative analyses, we conduct in-depth interviews with young parents (not TRAILS participants) in which we ask about their memories of their own adolescent peer relationships and how these might impact current friendships, partner relationships, and how they bring up their children.

The findings from CAPE have the potential to inform professionals working with children and families as they might spot intergenerational cycles of peer problems and maladjusted social development. Young adults who have struggled to form lasting positive and supportive relationships with others might benefit from reflecting on their experiences and try to modify internal working models of relationships. On a more fundamental level, developmental psychologist and all others interested in child development will be interested in findings on the precursors of individual variation in social development and how this is influenced genetically and environmentally.
Various activities as described in the action have been set in motion, including

- Collection of DNA using buccal cells from TRAILS participant, their partner and their offspring at 30 months offspring age
- Collection of questionnaire data on self-perception and perception of relationship with others from TRAILS participant using hostile attribution bias scale
- Development of protocol and training for Berkeley Puppet Interview and parent-child interaction task
- Development of a coding scheme to elucidate early parent-child interactions at 3 and 30 months child age; with first ~100 interaction videos coded by Bachelor students
- Qualitative interviews on impact of adolescent peer experiences on adult relationships and upbringing of own offspring

Apart from those planned activities, we were able to send biosamples as collected in 2006 from TRAILS parents for genotyping. This is fortunate as the quality of the samples would have been deemed not sufficient anymore for analyses after >10 years of storing in the freezer but initial analyses indicated a sufficient DNA yield to enable genetically informed analyses involving TRAILS participants and their parents. These data, together with the data collected as part of the action and in combination with highly detailed information on environmental and individual factors as collected in TRAILS, are of extremely high value to developmental psychologists. Although genotyping was somewhat delayed by Covid-19, we are currently preparing the data for use in analyses. Note that this activity was conducted in addition to the activities as described in the action.

Next to activities related to data collection, various journal articles and book chapters have been published or are in press or submitted and the CAPE team has intensified their excellent collaboration with the TRAILS team at the University Medical Centre, with Prof. Christoph Stadtfeld at ETH Zurich (a planned visit in Summer 2020 had to be deferred due to the Covid-19 pandemic), with Prof. Isabelle Ouellet-Moring at the University of Montreal who visited in the summer of 2019, and with other ERC-Starting Grant or other grant holders working with similar data that enable replications across samples (e.g. Dr. Rebecca Pearson at the University of Bristol). CAPE has also enabled a growing number of Bachelor and Master thesis students to gain real research experience and has encouraged several of them to go on to Research Master (Nynke Douma) and PhD programs (Maria Wiertsema, Ayla Pollmann).
CAPE encompasses several components to understand mechanisms behind cross-context and -generation transmission, some of which can be considered highly innovative and unique: To this end, the initial project period focused on setting up longitudinal data collection, specifically home visits to families where one parent has been part of the ongoing longitudinal cohort study TRAILS and who have entered the TRAILS Next study when expecting offspring. Funding for TRAILS NEXT was initially limited to questionnaires and a short observation at 30 months offspring age; CAPE enables an extensive home visit when the child is 54 months old as well as DNA collection and analysis from offspring and both parents at the 30-months visit. The latter has been going on for almost two years now but the sample size is still too small to allow for well-powered analyses which is why we have not yet published those data. First analyses are planned for mid-2021. Fortunately, and not described in the action, DNA was still stored from parents of TRAILS participants. We have been able to genotype the stored biosamples, which adds a fantastic resource for researchers interested in genetics of nurture and genetic pathways of intergenerational transmission.