This article accompanies the prior article on impacts of trauma and bullying and the brain. In that group of excerpts, being “born” into stress from parents in stress or trauma was covered. You can actually be born with predisposition to ptsd and have the “alertness” hormones active at birth. These articles discuss what is transmitted from the view point of Holocaust victims and soldiers both. War trauma can be passed on to children, transgenerational trauma, but further, studies show the trauma moves down generations to include three full generations.
This poses interesting questions: if a child of stress grandparents is born with both the physical and mental predisposition of ptsd, can it show up early, even if the parents and home are currently stable, and then could that then open up bipolar mood disorder very early. Personally, I think that is plausible and an explanation for very young children where a chaotic bipolar disorder has opened up early.
Charles Bunch, Ph.D.
Is There Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma? The Case of Combat
Rachel Dekel, PhD
Hadass Goldblatt, PhD
University of Haifa
This article is a review of the literature on intergenerational transmission of posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) from fathers to sons in families of war veterans. The review addresses several questions: (1)
Which fathers have a greater tendency to transmit their distress to their offspring? (2) What is transmitted
from father to child? (3) How is the distress transmitted and through which mechanisms? And finally, (4)
Which children are more vulnerable to the transmission of PTSD distress in the family? Whereas the
existing literature deals mainly with fathers’ PTSD as a risk for increased emotional and behavior
problems among the children, this review also highlights the current paucity of knowledge regarding
family members and extrafamilial systems that may contribute to intergenerational transmission of PTSD
or to its moderation. Little is also known about resilience and strengths that may mitigate or prevent the
risk of intergenerational transmission of trauma.
Keywords: PTSD, war, fathers, secondary traumatization, intergenerational transmission
Third Generation Survivors: Themes and Characteristics
Review of the above research suggests that although some survivors and their children
have become successful in their everyday lives, emotional issues from the Holocaust may
continue to impact future generations. While much effort has been placed on how the second
generation has been affected by living in a home with a parent who survived the Holocaust,
research about the third generation survivors and what role the Holocaust has played in their
lives remains in its infancy.
The third generation, the grandchildren of the first generation survivors, proves to be of
importance since in many families they are the last generation to have contact with the first
generation survivors. Although third generation survivors have not had direct contact with the
actual traumas of the Holocaust, there is varying evidence regarding whether this generation
continues to experience traumatic symptoms related to the Holocaust (Bar-On et al., 1998;
Rowland-Klein & Dunlop, 1998).
The following section will provide a comprehensive review of the literature on third
generation survivors. More specifically, some of the themes that have surfaced in the research
on the third generation such as coping, transmission of trauma, and family values will be
addressed. Finally, a look at the psychopathology of this generation will be analyzed and a few
statements from third generation survivors will be provided as well as a meta-analysis that
examined whether vicarious traumatization skipped a generation and directly went to the third
generation. This section will conclude with a look at what gaps remain and what other
contributions this study will aim to meet in an effort expand on the literature on future
generations of Holocaust survivors.
Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma across Three Generations: A Preliminary Study
This qualitative study reports a preliminary investigation of the intergenerational transmission of trauma across three generations, and across three types of trauma. Representatives of three families in which the first generation had experienced a trauma were examined. Trauma included experiencing the Holocaust, being placed in a transit camp following immigration from Morocco, and being forced to dislocate as the result of a war. The representatives of successive generations were administered qualitative, open–ended interviews regarding their life as survivors or victims, or as the second/third generation of survivors/victims. A content analysis revealed that the intergenerational transmission of three types of trauma was perpetuated across three generations.
THEORIESof trauma transmission
The study of how trauma is transmitted is still in the early stage (Baranosky, Young, Johnson-Douglas, Williams-Keeler & MacCarrey, 1998). Baranowsky et al., (1998) explains the phenomenon of trauma transmission in Holocaust-survivor offspring as follows:
“These offspring, the ‘second generation’ from the trauma, may thus bear ‘the scar without the wound” (p.248).
Baranosky et al. (1998) consequently discuss the following possible theories of trauma transmission:
1. Empathic traumatisation. This term is used to describe the offspring’s attempts to understand their parents’ wartime experiences and pain as a means of establishing a connection with them. In doing so, the offspring imagines Holocaust scenes that they attempt to successfully escape or survive. The offspring literally maintains familial ties by integrating their parents’ experiences.
2. Children adopt their parents’ trauma through one of two types of parental communication, namely an obsessive retelling of Holocaust stories, and silence.
3. Intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs when the traumatized parent implants his or her own emotional instability into their children.
4. The female offspring of trauma victims are more likely to unknowingly adopt the trauma-related symptoms of their mothers.
5. Survivor parents attempt to teach their children how to survive in the event of further persecution; thus they inadvertently transmit their own traumatic experiences. These children then often act out the trauma-survival behavior adopted by their parents and become highly sensitive to trauma imagery during same-age anniversaries of their parents’ trauma.
Four working models
In their discussion of mechanisms of trauma transmission, Ancharoff et al., (1998) propose the following four working models:
Silence. Silence can often communicate traumatic messages as powerfully as words could. Silences in the family may develop in one of two ways. To avoid arousing further distress, family members may work hard to shun issues they believe might trigger discomfort and further symptomatology in the parent. Secondly, the parents’ behavior might inhibit discussions about sensitive issues.
Over-disclosure. It is distressing to hear traumatic details without a concomitant effect. Parents may make graphic disclosures of trauma-related information to prepare their children how to survive in a world in which they believe there is no trust and where danger is omnipresent.
Identification.Children who live with a traumatized parent may be continually exposed to post-trauma reactions, which can be unpredictable and frightening. These children tend to feel responsible for their parents’ distress and feel that if they could just be good enough, their parents would not be so sad or angry. Children of combat veterans for example, identify with their fathers’ experience in order to know him better. They attempt to feel what he feels, possibly leading to the development of parallel symptomatology.
Re-enactment.Trauma survivors tend to re-enact their trauma. People close to trauma survivors could find themselves thinking, feeling, and behaving as if they too had been traumatized or were perpetrators.
People are traumatizedeither directly or indirectly. The DSM-IV (APA, 1994) includes the following phrase in its description of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder):
“It implies inter alia to learn about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury
experienced by a family member or other close associates” (p.424).
People can thus be traumatized without actually being physically harmed or threatened with harm, simply by learning about the traumatic event. Thus, simply the knowledge that a loved one has been exposed to a traumatic event, could be traumatizing. Against this background, Yehuda et al., (1998) argue that we can consider the possibility that offspring might indeed develop PTSD symptoms in response to hearing about their parents’ trauma, particularly if these children subjectively stated that such information elicited fear, helplessness or horror.
The term compassion fatigue is also important with regard to the rest of this discussion. Figley (1995) definesthis term as follows:
“The natural behaviors and emotions that arise from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a
significant other – the stress from helping or wanting to help a traumatized person” (p.xiv).
According to Figley (1995), it appears as if secondary traumatic stress/compassion fatigue is the syndrome that puts most therapists at risk. Ironically, the most effective therapists are most vulnerable to this mirroring or contagion effect. Baranowsky et al., (1998) refer to Holocaust Memorial Museum staff exposed to personal artifacts, survivor histories and archival materials, who reported a range of stress reactions, including states of emotional numbing, social withdrawal, grief reactions, nightmares, and anger.
Against this background, one could appropriately pose the following question with Baranowsky et al., (1998):
“If trauma is so volatile as to leave its mark on a therapist who meets a client for a limited period of time, or museum staff who come in contact with historical material alone, we must ask what happens to the offspring of trauma victims who interact with these individuals on a daily basis” (p.249).
EXAMPLES of TRAUMA transmission
Aarts (1998) relates the following example. Previously a conscientious and timid student, Jonathan at the age of 15 had suddenly begun to cause serious problems at school. He disturbed his classes and refused to do his homework. After he had been expelled from one school, his father enrolled him at another. His misconduct persisted, however. Jonathan’s parents responded with utter helplessness. His father explained in one session that he gave in to Jonathan’s demands for money because he might otherwise steal it, which he eventually did. Both Jonathan’s parents had been interned in Japanese concentration camps as young children. At the age of five, Jonathan’s father Paul was caught stealing some sugar-cane by a female inmate of the camp. The woman severely battered and nearly suffocated Paul by forcing a wooden stick down his throat. He remembers his mother watching the scene from nearby without trying to interfere. After the Japanese capitulation, Paul’s father, whom he could hardly remember, joined the family but was soon recruited by the Dutch army to fight the Indonesian Independence Movement. The family emigrated to The Netherlands when Paul was 15 years old. Paul’s father, like many immigrants from the Dutch Indies, had to accept a job much below his former standards. Feeling humiliated, he loudly and frequently complained about his fate. For reasons Paul never quite understood, his father also felt disappointed with and betrayed by the Dutch military command. He left the care of Paul and his siblings entirely to his wife, completely yielding to her wishes. He showed no recognition of Paul’s achievements at school. Instead, he sometimes seemed jealous of Paul’s progress at school.
Nader (1998) refers to the fact that studies have pointed out that there is an increased vulnerability during exposure to a traumatic experience as a result of a parent’s previous trauma. In this regard, it was found that between one and three years after participation in the 1982 war in Lebanon, Israeli combat veterans whose parents were Holocaust survivors, showed higher rates of PTSD and greater numbers of PTSD symptoms than their combat-veteran counterparts whose parents were not survivors of the Holocaust. The decrease in PTSD symptoms over time was also greater for soldiers with non-survivor parents.
Typical symptoms/behavioUr of the traumatiSed survivor parent
In studies done on World War II prisoners of war and their families, Bernstein (1998) and Op den Velde (1998) listed the following aspects as typical with regard to prisoners of war in their relationships to their families:
§ A lack of emotional involvement with others.
§ Compulsive work habits that lead to a lack of social interaction.
§ A fear of closeness, related to wartime loss of friends, thoughts, and nightmares of combat, deaths,
beatings, starvation, and isolation.
§ Denial, suppression and repression as coping mechanisms.
§ Feelings of guilt and anger.
§ Hyper-arousal, leading to increased startle reactions, feelings of fear, stress and ever-present
§ A desire to keep silent about frightening and life-threatening experiences and putting up a brave front.
§ Sleep disturbance and recurrent dreams of traumatic events.
§ Feelings of detachment and diminished interest.
§ Emotional distance within marriage.
§ Difficulties in these persons’ response to the physical illness of friends and family.
§ Mood swings without appreciable precipitants.
§ Sudden anger outbursts.
§ Extended work hours prior to retirement.
§ A high prevalence of psychiatric morbidity.
§ Neurotic over-activity combined with tenseness and irritability, as well as psychosomatic syndromes
such as hypertension, myocardial infarction, asthma, and gastric ulcers in high frequency.
§ Living in the past and present at the same time – trying to survive in the present, and struggling to
separate themselves from the grief, guilt, anger and fear of the past.
§ In retirement, fears of illness and death of family members emerge, leading to feelings of
abandonment. This could intensify behavior such as withdrawal, depression, alcoholism, and marital
Children’s needs may reactivate traumatic history
Parents that are survivors often convey traumatic themes in non-verbal ways. Their children must then organize the stories of atrocities and massive trauma to which they have been exposed. Their parents’ stories of violence that are threatening and traumatizing per se, could become fused with their own aggression. It could also become screens onto which this aggression is projected, while these stories simultaneously shape and organize their fantasies and instinctive lives. The result of this process is then very often that these children’s normative development needs and conflicts may reactivate the parents’ traumatic histories (Auerhahn & Laub, 1998).
Consequently, the risk of intergenerational transmission of trauma during the adolescence phase is very high. This phase appears to be a most difficult time for both the traumatized parent and his/her children in terms of identity development in the child (Ancharoff et al., 1998). In this regard, Aarts (1998) points out that themes bound to become pivotal in each child’s development, such as aggression, shame, guilt, attachment and loss, intensify the parents’ post-traumatic struggles. In response, the parents are then often either too permissive or too strict, or even sadistic with their child.
Parents may reactivate their children’s trauma
Op den Velde (1998) states that traumatized parents could directly stimulate the continued existence of trauma in their children. Some of the children who were studied displayed re-experiencing symptoms that contained the psychotraumatic experiences of their parents. In all cases, these symptoms included nightmares and flashbacks with extraordinary clarity. The children’s avoidance symptoms were related to situations that are associated with the traumatic experiences of the parent. These children exhibited a complete clinical picture of PTSD, without having had war experiences themselves.
Symptoms could appear only years later
There is often a period of latency – a seemingly symptomless interval. In about half of the veterans in one study, PTSD manifested more than 20 years after the end of the war. In some cases, this latency period can be described as pathological adaptation to so-called normality and repression of traumatic war experiences (Op den Velde, 1998).
Aarts (1998) relates the case of a man who was incarcerated by the Japanese during World War II and who worked on the Burma railroad. After the war he repeatedly claimed to be totally unaffected by it. He was always strong and healthy and would never give in to any emotion. Then, shortly after his fiftieth birthday, he broke down.
Extreme parental over-protectiveness
Should their children experience trauma, some traumatized or previously traumatized parents tend to become over-protective of their children following the traumatic event. This is often in association with anxiety (Nader, 1998; Kupelian et al., 1998).
Impairment of parenting capacities
A study by Daud et al.,(2005) indicated that children from families where at least one parent had experienced extreme trauma (such as torture) display psychopathological symptoms. There is also a relationship between children’s and parents’ symptoms in these families. The results of this study also support the view that psychiatric and psychological problems may indeed impair the parenting capacities of persons that have experienced grievous and prolonged trauma.
One study examined mothers with a history of abuse and found maternal hyperactivity to infant stimuli (Möhler et al., 2001). It was also found that abused mothers rarely identify their infants’ emotional signals correctly, while their empathic responsiveness and affective reactivity have been shown to be lowered.
The shattering of fundamental assumptions
The psychological sequelae of trauma stem from the shattering of three fundamental assumptions about the world and the self: the world is benevolent, the world is meaningful, and the self is worthy. After the traumatic experience, the world is no longer considered safe and secure; thus, a new worldview is constructed. It is this disrupted schema of the traumatized parent that is transmitted to the children, influencing their basic assumptions, worldviews and beliefs (Ancharoff et al.,1998).
Projection of split-off parts
The traumatized parent may attempt to release his or her consciousness from tortured memories and emotions by means of repression and somatization. Fear of the return of persecution, blocked aggression, feelings of guilt, shame, and a damaged self-image, split off: The person is not capable of personally experiencing these feelings and characteristics as an integral part of the self. When such a person becomes a parent, his or her child is inevitably confronted with these split-off memories and emotions. One of the hazards is that the split-off part of the parent is projected onto the child (Op den Velde, 1998).
Möhler, Resch, Cierpka & Cierpka (2001) support this view by stating that parents tend to project unconscious material of their own past onto their infant, especially during the first months of life, unconsciously shaping the formation of the infant’s self.