Our lives are reenactments not only of our own buried traumatic experiences, but also contain our family history. To the extent that our family history has been traumatic, the family traumatic reenactment then compounds and magnifies the individual traumatic reenactment. Intergenerational trauma has been best studied in research on the offspring of Holocaust survivors (Danielli, 1885; Freyberg, 1980; Kestenberg, 1980; Sigal, 1989) and can be summed up in one sentence: "The children of survivors show symptoms which would be expected if they actually lived through the Holocaust" (Herzog, 1982). Lenore Terr (1990) quoted a survivor and psychoanalyst as saying, "My thirty-five year-old son told me recently that he has had nightmares in which the Gestapo come up his stairs. You realize what this means? My son was born and raised in America. But he dreams my nightmare, MY life." (p.311)(Terr, 1990).
War experience has also shown to be problematic for the next generation. It has been noted repeatedly that many of the symptoms of PTSD have a severe, ongoing, and disruptive effect on marital and family life (Figley & Sprenkle, 1978; Matsakis, 1988; Rosenheck, 1986). One study of eighty six children of Vietnam War veterans with PTSD showed that children with a violent father were significantly more likely to have more behavior problems, poorer school performance, and less social competence than children with a nonviolent father. Within this high-risk group, a lower level of family functioning, father's past combat experience, and current violent behavior were all significantly associated with the behavior problems of the children (Harkness, 1993).
The intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment is also being studied. There is extensive evidence to show that parents who were maltreated are more likely than non-maltreated parents, to abuse their own children. About one-third of parents who were abused as children continue a pattern of seriously inept, neglectful or abusive parenting. One-third do not. Another third remain vulnerable to the effects of social stress and are more likely to become abusive under such influences (Oliver, 1993). This generational transmission happens in a number of ways. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that one mechanism is through the attachment relationship. Mothers who have been rejected by their mothers tend to be rejecting of their own infants (Main & Goldwyn, 1984). In a large study of the intergenerational transmission of corporal punishment, social learning, passed from one generation to the next appeared to be the most important factor (Muller, Hunter, & Stollak, 1995) although the effect of establishing a family norm which then gets passed on from one generation to the next also may play a role (Jacobs & Campbell, 1965). Other research focuses on the damage that child abuse does to the brain which interferes with normal parenting of the next generation (Teicher, Glod, Surrey, & Swett, 1993).
Breaking the cycle of abuse is more likely to happen if parents have current social support, particularly a supportive spouse, if they have had a positive relationship with a significant adult during childhood, and if they have had therapy as an adolescent or an adult which allows them to remember, talk about, express anger over, their abuse while holding their abuser, not themselves, acountable for it (Cicchetti & Lynch, 1995).
Another both disturbing and exciting area of research has opened up – epigenetics. As it turns out, the DNA in our cells wrap around little proteins called histones like thread around a spool. Little chemical tags can attach to either the DNA itself or the histones – these are called “epigenetic markers” and these markers can affect a gene’s behavior without changing the gene itself (Nestler, 2011). Research on rats has shown that epigenes can influence maternal behavior and the effects can then be passed on to the next generation by acting on the pup’s brain, not by changing its germ cells. Research is beginning to accumulate showing how environmental cues can stimulate epigenetic changes that could contribute to many medical and psychiatric problems (Steinberg, 2006). There is a growing scientific consensus that the nature vs. nurture controversy is over, that nature and nurture are complexly interactive. “Research in both animals and humans shows that some epigenetic changes that occur in the fetus during pregnancy can be passed on to later generations, affecting the health and welfare of children, grandchildren, and their descendents…. Repetitive, highly stressful experiences can cause epigenetic changes that damage the systems that manage one’s response to adversity later in life”
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Rosenheck, R. (1986). Impact of post-traumatic stress disorder of World War II on the next generation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 174(6), 319-327.
Sigal, J. (1989). Trauma and Rebirth: Intergenerational Effects of the Holocaust. New York: Praeger.
Steinberg, D. (2006). Determining Nature vs. Nurture. Scientific American Mind, 17, 12-14.
Teicher, M. H., Glod, C. A., Surrey, J., & Swett, C., Jr. (1993). Early childhood abuse and limbic system ratings in adult psychiatric outpatients. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci, 5(3), 301-306.
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Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. (2013). Creating sanctuary: Toward the evolution of sane societies, 2nd Edition. New York, Routledge.