The consequences of genetic testing in children have been reviewed. In contrast to observations in adults, young children in particular are vulnerable to changes in parent and child bonding based on test results. Genetic testing could interfere with the development of self-concept and self-esteem. Children may also be at risk of developing feelings of survivor guilt or heightened anxiety. All children are especially susceptible to not understanding the testing, results, or implications for their health. As children mature, they begin to have decreased dependency on their parents while developing their personal identity. This can be altered in the setting of a serious health condition or an inherited disorder. Older children are beginning to mature physically and develop intimate relationships while also changing their idealized view of their parents. All of this can be influenced by the results of a genetic test. In its recommendations for genetic testing in asymptomatic minors, the European Society of Human Genetics emphasizes that parents have a responsibility to inform their children about their genetic risk, and to communicate this information in a way that is tailored to the child's age and developmental level.[54,55]
In summary, the decision to proceed with testing in children is based on the use of the test for medical decision-making for the child, the ability to interpret the test, and evidence that changes in medical decision-making in childhood can positively impact health outcomes. Deferral of genetic testing is suggested when the risk of childhood malignancy is low or absent and/or there is no evidence that interventions can reduce risk.[1,2] When offering genetic testing in childhood, consideration of the child's developmental stage is used to help determine his or her involvement in the testing decision, and who has legal authority to provide consent. In addition, careful attention to intrafamilial issues and potential psychosocial consequences of testing in children can enable the provider to deliver support that facilitates adaptation to the test result. (See the Genetics of Breast and Ovarian Cancer, Genetics of Colorectal Cancer, and Genetics of Medullary Thyroid Cancer summaries for more information on psychosocial research done in children being tested for specific cancer susceptibility gene mutations.)
Testing in vulnerable populations
Genetic counseling and testing requires special considerations when used in vulnerable populations. In 1995, the American Society of Human Genetics published a position statement on the ethical, legal, and psychosocial implications of genetic testing in children and adolescents as a vulnerable population. However, vulnerable populations encompass more than just children. Federal policy applicable to research involving human subjects, 45 CFR Code of Federal Regulations part 46 Protection Of Human Subjects, considers the following groups as potentially vulnerable populations: prisoners, traumatized and comatose patients, terminally ill patients, elderly/aged persons who are cognitively impaired and/or institutionalized, minorities, students, employees, and individuals from outside the United States. Specific to genetic testing, the International Society of Nurses in Genetics further expanded the definition of vulnerable populations to also include individuals with hearing and language deficits or conditions limiting communication (for example, language differences and concerns with reliable translation), cognitive impairment, psychiatric disturbances, clients undergoing stress due to a family situation, those without financial resources; clients with acute or chronic illness and in end-of-life, and those in whom medication may impair reasoning.