Those who experience severe trauma (including, of course, childhood trauma) and develop significant and chronic symptoms as a result (e.g. alcoholism, drug abuse or severe psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, complex PTSD and PTSD) may, in turn, traumatize their own children who then themselves develop psychological/emotional/behavioural problems which, in continuation of this destructive cycle, adversely affects their children…and so on. This domino effect refers to the phenomenon known as transgenerational trauma (transgenerational trauma is also sometimes referred to as intergenerational trauma).
This harmful cycle can be broken, however, if family members gain insight into the process and obtain effective therapy.
One well-known study (Solomon et al., 1988) which elucidates the process of transgenerational trauma has demonstrated that even if a child brought up by a parent who is suffering from PTSD manages to reach adulthood in a state of psychological health, s/he is still at greater risk of developing PTSD in later life as a result of a severely traumatic experience than an individual who was brought up by parents free of PTSD (all else being equal).
INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA AND EPIGENETICS :
It has also been theorized that the effects of trauma may be passed on due to a process known as EPIGENETICS; this process involves genes being ‘switched on’ or ‘switched off’ as a result particular experiences. In this way, severe trauma may set off such epigenetic changes which are, in turn, inherited by the individual’s child/children.
An animal study that helps to illustrate how the process of epigenetics works involved mice that were given electric shocks whenever they were exposed to the smell of cherries. In this way, they ‘learned’ to fear cherries whenever they smelt them, even when the electric shocks were no longer administered; this is known as conditioned fear.
It was found that, through epigenetic processes, the offspring of these mice also showed signs of fear whenever they were exposed to the smell of cherries, as did the offspring of these offspring, even though neither of these two latter generations of mice had NOT been conditioned to fear the smell of cherries. In other words, the study suggests that the epigenetic changes caused by the conditioned fear of cherries in the first generation of mice were passed on to the subsequent two generations.
Methods that can be useful to help break the destructive cycle of transgenerational trauma include :
- A) providing families that are in danger of getting caught up in the transgenerational trauma process with appropriate therapy such as Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS). Key strategies employed in such therapy are as follows: repairing dysfunctional communication patterns within the family; treatment that is culturally informed, and allowing trauma within the family to be therapeutically expressed and articulated (Sells, 2018). You can read more about Sell’s approach to treating the traumatized child using the family systems approach in his excellent book: Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by-Step Family Systems Approach. (In relation to Family Systems Theory, you may also be interested to read my previously published article entitled: Family Systems Theory And The Family Scapegoat).
- B) educating the public about this pernicious process in order to help them develop insight, which, in turn, can encourage positive changes.
- C) training more health professionals, in particular those working directly with those suffering from trauma, in the understanding of how the effects of trauma may be passed down the generations and how to intervene effectively in families in which this process is in danger of being played out.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).