Trauma Transmissions Affect Many Generations

by Jill Salberg, Ph.D., ABPP

Heinrich Himmler standing near refugees in occupied Metz, France. Photo is from a group of photos of Himmler and Nazi soldiers

Psychotherapy and psychoanalytic studies have found that traumatic experiences of physical and sexual abuse in the history of parents become trans-generationally transmitted to the next generation as fear, anxiety and sometimes actualising abuse behaviour. There is great need for intervention and psychotherapy treatment to help people heal from trauma and prevent further transmissions of traumatic states and experiences.

There have been important shifts in psychoanalysis moving away from how we think that the immediate family is the only relevant influence on someone’s development and being solely focused on internal conflicts of the person. This shift now expands to multiple generations as affecting family members and the effects of external trauma on the mind. In this way relational trauma is understood to be rooted in experiences that are in the family and also the social world, in collective experiences of persecution and abuse including but not limited to: racism and legacies of slavery, sexual abuse including sex trafficking and malignant sexism, wars including ethnic cleansing, virulent hatreds and prejudices and political persecution.

The violence of trauma fractures someone’s experience of being in the world and tears at the fabric of attachment, our intrinsic way of feeling safe. Ruptures in attachment relationships that occur in trauma become one of the key mechanisms of how it is transmitted to the next generation. The scars from traumas that are inside of people who become parents often affect directly their capacity to be consistent and engaged in their caregiving. Unresolved mourning, persistent states of anxiety, depression and terror interfere with attaching and trusting new relationships. While many survivors of trauma also transmit resiliency and want to create loving families and communities, more often trauma survivors carry both resiliency and the scars of trauma. It is the imprint of the dehumanising aspects of trauma; the violent victimisation of one’s integrity as a person as well as surviving when others perished that continues to haunt survivors.  These ghosts of their past get transmitted and can be seen in the successive generations.

Researchers have found biological markers of trauma, eg higher cortisol levels and changes in myelination, which can affect “gene expression”, and then become inevitable in the next generation. Trauma and stress and these biological markers in the mother can be inherited and predispose their offspring to a tendency towards PTSD-like reactions. Children inherit altered biochemistry that can leave them more vulnerable to registering fearful and anxious situations and to being more fearful and anxious themselves. This becomes the fuller legacy of trans-generational transmission of traumatic forms of attachment: an alteration in both the biology and the attachment systems. Some of these children are inherently more anxious while being raised by parents surviving their own traumas. Some of these parents will be able to transmit safety and provide for consistent attachment while others will transmit a confusing mix of messages of fearfulness and safety becoming trauma’s haunting legacy.

Research findings also suggest that psychotherapy and psychoanalytic treatments offer much needed help to people suffering from trauma and transmissions of trauma states. Talk therapies offer the safety necessary that allow someone to begin to talk about what has been endured. This needed processing of traumatic experiences happens with a caring therapist who can then witness, recognise and help the person to metabolise their traumatic experiences and regulate their emotional reactions.

Additionally, family and couple therapies help people learn how to talk about their traumatic histories in ways that are not overwhelming and allow empathic dialogues to open up between partners and grow. Family work is very helpful when some of these histories have remained as unspoken secrets, which leave children sensing the worst, feeling somehow implicated and yet not able to ask for answers or reassurance. There is also a need to help parents develop empathic capacities often limited given their trauma histories.  Being able to find empathy in their therapist becomes the beginning of self-empathy and self-care, both crucial for healthy functioning.

Jill Salberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical associate professor and clinical consultant/supervisor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Her articles on Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma appear in international psychoanalytic journals and she has co-edited two books with Sue Grand, The Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma, and Transgenerational Trauma and the Other: Dialogues Across History and Difference, (2017). Both books won the Gradiva Award for 2018.  She is in private practice in New York, U.S.