Intergenerational Trauma: A Moving Target
Posted on September 2, 2016
As that last couple of weeks have shown us, intergenerational trauma can reach out from the past and dramatically impact present functioning, well-being, and brain function. In future posts, we will discuss ways to assess for and help clients through this type of trauma. In this post, I want to take a brief look at how intergenerational trauma can vary in its impact, even within the same family system.
One might expect that the trauma impacting preceding generations would impact each family member in a relatively similar manner. However, life and experience are never a stagnant phenomenon. Even for children born within a relatively close timeframe, the impact of intergenerational trauma can be vastly different. Let’s take a look at a quick example that demonstrates both how different the impact can be and how important providing services to one generation can influence the next.
Let’s take an example of a family struggling with poverty, drug use, and employment and housing instability. Both parents in this example come from families with a history of poverty, struggling parents, and drug use. This genetic expression, as well is the experience of both parents, have dramatically impacted their neurodevelopment, personal narratives about the world and themselves, and limits their ability to see a future for themselves that is different from that of preceding generations. In this mix, a child is conceived.
The DNA in the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm favor characteristics that would benefit a child who needs to survive an impoverished reality and unstable family dynamics. While in utero, the mother’s stress, stemming from increased financial hardship and worries about her partner’s drug use, chemically transfers to the developing fetus. The combination of genetic expression and the in-utero chemical reality prepare the child to survive the high-stress environment that she is likely to be born into, if her parents situation doesn’t change dramatically.
A few months later, the child is actually born into this economically and socially stressed family. This further reinforces the genetic expression, and her rapidly developing brain further adapts to survive her parents’ stress and drug use. If this continues indefinitely, we can expect that the daughter will develop many of the same personality traits of her parents, and many of their struggles as well.
But let’s say three months after the daughter is born, two things happen to the family. First, the mother becomes pregnant again. Second, the family enters a program that helps them establish housing stability, helps her parents find job, provides substance abuse treatment, and addresses many of the other stresses in the family life.
While the second child will also inherit DNA similar to her older sister, let’s discuss how a change in environment and life situation can impact development. During this pregnancy, the mother is not exposed to the same high levels of stress, due to being in a program and getting help. The chemical environment in utero for the second child will be much healthier, and the genetic expression will be less reinforced, allowing the potential for the systems that regulate emotional stability and intellectual growth to more fully develop.
Born into this new healthier reality, the second child’s early months are filled with more stimulation, nurturing, and healthier family dynamics. This again reinforces the developmental systems that would promote a greater level of success in school, relationships, and employment than either her sister or her parents. While the intergenerational experience is still in this child, the environment now requires something much different for survival and success.
While this is a dramatic example of two very different realities in a relatively short period of time, it effectively demonstrates how changing circumstances impact the potential genetic expression for children of relatively similar age. Expression can also be impacted by the 2% of the chromosomal DNA that is not impacted as much by intergenerational experiences, but that can also impact personality differences. These personality differences will manifest intergenerational trauma in vastly different ways, resulting in very different symptoms and expressions.
This example also demonstrates the importance of getting people into services to work to help break the generational patterns of trauma. In reality, all four people in this example have the potential to live healthy successful lives. The parents who experienced their own intergenerational trauma, in addition to the stress and trauma in their own lives, will need more time, resources, and support in order to heal this experience and overcome their challenges.
The first child, being so young, still has a high chance of success in school, relationships, and eventually employment. The intensity of her early experiences, combined with intergenerational trauma, does increase the risk of falling into the patterns and challenges of her parents. However, with a little help, she has every opportunity to live a normal life. Obviously, the second child is the best off in the scenario, as her early experiences did not reinforce the need for a highly developed survival system, allowing brain areas associated with cognitive development and emotional regulation to more fully develop. This doesn’t mean that she will experience no impact from the intergenerational trauma, but as long as her parents’ situation at home and in life remains stable and healthy, she should be able to realize her potential.
Intergenerational trauma is difficult to identify and diagnose. It is likely that neither of the daughters in the above example will ever think about their parents’ situation before their birth, in utero, and in the first months of life having a tremendous impact on their functioning as adults. This is why it’s important that those of us who work with struggling clients start to integrate our knowledge of intergenerational trauma into our work and assessments.
My question this week is whether you have seen a diverse expression of intergenerational trauma, either with your family, families of your friends, or clients you work with? If so, do you have any insight into why these variations exist?