Intergenerational Trauma Part 4: Theories of Transmission

“When a crime against humanity occurs, all of humanity is affected,” said Christie Tcharkhoutian, speaking at the symposium, Inheriting Genocide: Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma.

In that spirit, I’ve tried to apply what I heard that day very broadly. Right now? I’ve just watched footage of still another school shooting. Children dead. Hundreds more traumatized by what they’ve gone through. Millions of parents and kids affected as well, as they realize, once again, that there is no place of safety, that in our society guns have more rights than human life. Politicians are complicit in the slaughter. Gun manufacturers profit from it. No one is left untouched.

“Most trauma,” said Dr. Andrei Novac, “has fallout in society.”

This installment, however, will briefly share theories about the transgenerational effects of trauma. How is it transmitted? There’s no single explanation. Instead we have to look at the individual, at the interplay of biological and psychosocial factors.

As Dr. Natan Kellermann pointed out, even within a single family, not every child inherits the burden of secondary trauma. He asks about content, process, and timing: what the child learned, how it was told, and when—and how the child reacted to this knowledge.

When the parent’s trauma remains silenced, psychoanalytic theory would say the repressed experience is transmitted as a shadow over the child, and it’s the child who must now process the experience. On the other hand, sometimes there’s too much talk of the traumatic experience, repetitive and obsessive.

Tactics that helped a person survive there may carry over in habits here. The second generation feels the effects even if the mechanism is not clear.

Parenting style makes a difference. For example, survivors may be overprotective while others have no patience with any sign of weakness.

Today there’s a lot of interest in the biological or epigenetic factors, the way the biological stress response in the mother is transmitted to the child during pregnancy.

In just one line of research, as Dr. Andrei Novac explained, when a person perceives a potential threat, the impulse goes first through the frontal lobe which evaluates whether or not the alarm needs to be heeded. In people who’ve been traumatized, the amygdala doesn’t wait for the stimulus to be evaluated. Instead it releases a flood of adrenaline. For most people, this then triggers the release of cortisol which has an initial calming effect. But people diagnosed with PTSD show below normal levels of cortisol. Once an alarm is triggered, the organism doesn’t calm down—and it turns out children of people diagnosed with PTSD are more likely to develop PTSD themselves if experiencing trauma. They show the same low cortisol levels.

We tend to use the term “PTSD” for any negative consequence of trauma. For those of us who work with survivors of any sort of trauma, Dr. Novac stressed that PTSD is actually the least common diagnosis, though the most severe and needing the most treatment. The most frequent diagnosis is depression followed by anxiety which may be accompanied by substance abuse.

Dr. Kellermann reminded us that vast majority of survivors and their children function well. Consequences are unpredictable; most people will recover from trauma though everyone, depending on context and at different times, can experience either vulnerability or resilience. Every survivor had a history and a personality before the horrific event, during it, and after. When we generalize, we lose sight of the individual as well as the individual ways in which people interpret and make meaning from or find meaning in their life experience.

When we focus solely on the negative consequences of trauma, we may overlook the positive. As practitioners we can honor and support the strength, the sense of identity, solidarity, and commitment, the drive to achieve and never waste the life we’ve been given, all the motivating power that accompanies Post-Traumatic Growth.

Thanks for accompanying me this far. One final installment still to come.

 

Till then, be well,

Diane

 

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