Research into the effects of trauma – especially single-episode-present-life trauma – is now well understood among the scientific and psychological community and the wider public. However, the impact of intergenerational trauma, and its expression, is a burgeoning phenomenon.
The occurrence of intergenerational trauma is frequently examined as part of historical trauma. One of the first studies that documented intergenerational trauma was in 1966, when Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, noted high rates of psychological distress among descendants of Holocaust survivors.
Since this significant study was carried out, researchers have assessed PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other trauma-related disorders among trauma survivors and their children. Throughout this wide pool of research, there is shown to be a consistent prevalence of trauma disorders among offspring.
Yael Danieli, Founder and Director at the Intergenerational Center for Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, states, “it behoves us to study this area as widely as possible, so we can learn from people’s suffering and how to prevent it for future generations.”
Understanding Intergenerational Trauma
The most common source of reference to intergenerational trauma is that of Holocaust survivors and their families. However, all types of trauma to a parent, such as sexual abuse, the sudden death of a loved one, an accident, racism, neglect, domestic violence etc., are all shown to impact the mental health of offspring negatively.
Studies evidence specific maladaptive behaviour patterns within the trauma survivor’s progeny, including immature dependency, codependency, an obsession with the trauma event, control issues, avoidant attachment, and an over-protective attitude to parents or associated family members.
These reactions are known as reparative adaptational impacts. This reflects an offspring’s desire to repair the traumatic past of their parents and create a world where the parent feels safe and one where future generations of the family are secure.
Research has found the mothers post-trauma adaptive victim style has the strongest effect on whether the child develops trauma-related issues, such as generalised anxiety disorder and major depressive episodes. The severity of impact on the children of trauma survivors varies depending on this victim style.
Danieli has been extensively studying this topic since the 1980s. She devised a three-part questionnaire for adult children to understand the impact of their parent(s) trauma history on their upbringing, attachment type, their family behaviours, medical history, and how it has further influenced their adult life.
The Danielli Inventory is now widely acclaimed and is used worldwide as part of psychiatric assessment and subsequent treatment for trauma-related disorders. In its first use, the findings demonstrated that out of 484 children, 35% had generalised anxiety disorder, 26% had major depressive episodes, and 14% had PTSD. These findings closely connected to the post-trauma adaptive victim styles of the parent(s).
Danieli found three key victim styles of note:
The adult children whose parents had vulnerability behaviours associated with victim and numb styles were found to be far more likely to develop trauma disorders than those whose parent(s) had adapted to have the fighter style.
Aside from a parent(s) victim styles, there are numerous other ways traumatic effects may be transmitted throughout familial generations, including the body itself.
Understanding Epigenetic Trauma
Epigenetic trauma is part of a growing body of research that states that parental trauma triggers biological, genetic alterations which are passed down through a familial line to children and potentially grandchildren.
For example, Rachel Yehuda, PhD, found that children of Holocaust survivors with PTSD had reduced methylation levels, a type of epigenetic factor, which is a stress-related glucocorticoid receptor associated with anxiety and depression.
Michael Skinner, a biologist at Washington State University, has traced this inheritance of trauma to the epigenome. His research suggests that changes to the epigenome, a combination of biological factors which determine how genes are expressed, can be passed down through multiple generations.
Studies in this area are small, and there are concerns over the handling of such sensitive data. Proving that emotional trauma can be passed down through generations through genetics is difficult. What’s more, it is extremely complicated to disentangle these potential genetic alterations to those of social inheritance, which is an evidenced key factor for intergenerational trauma.
It would not be helpful to insinuate that a child’s inherited trauma disorders were inevitable or that they cannot be healed. Through trauma therapy, it is possible for sufferers to free themselves from introjected bonds and develop a true sense of autonomy, fulfilment, and well-being.
Trauma Disorders Need Not Be Inevitable
Although more understanding of intergenerational trauma and its transmission mechanisms is required, clinicians are delivering successful interventions and therapeutic treatments to help sufferers.
As the very nature of intergenerational trauma is familial, it is essential for treatment programs to be targeted towards the whole family. Through improved communication skills, reduced conflict strengthened resilience, and a deep understanding of how the trauma and associated behaviours impact, the family can grow together and heal as a unit.
In therapy, the psychologist will work with the client and their family to understand the origin of the trauma and its broader implications. A helpful tool is for a trauma family tree to be created, which incorporates multi-generations in order to provide transparent details of trauma history. This assists families in developing essential communication skills which focus on honesty – allowing them to move beyond secrecy, shame, or resentment and towards growth and positive connection.
This multigenerational family tree could additionally include genogram methodology, which incorporates health and psychological patterns which will help highlight family relationships and why certain behaviour patterns have been passed down.
Continuing to explore the intergenerational effects of trauma is essential for the ongoing effort to treat psychological pain and trauma disorders at their roots.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
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