Psychotherapy for people who have survived interpersonal trauma – part 2

Part 2 – The intergenerational transmission of trauma

This subject is particularly close to my heart. I have researched the intergenerational transmission of trauma, and have spent a lot of time with victims and their adult children. My aim has been to try and understand how it is that the children of parents who have survived interpersonal trauma come to repeat in their own lives some of their parents’ struggles, and come to feel many of the feelings which are associated with their parents’ trauma. I have spent time talking with mothers, and have had separate conversations with their adult children, in my efforts to understand the reasons why the “second generation”, the children of survivors, might come to identify with their mother’s depression, anxiety, patterns of behaviour, and particular forms of psychological defence. A couple of themes came up, which I am going to try and explain here. I think that this is such an important topic, and I often work with people along the lines of this subject. I hope that this post will shed some light of this very real difficulty.

One of the central themes which surfaced through the conversations was that survivor-parents felt compelled to hide the truths about their past from their children. Sometimes the decision to conceal the past from ones children makes perfect sense. Children, when they are very young, are not able to hold the pain of their parents’ past. It is appropriate to protect young children from knowing too much. As children age, however, it is appropriate to begin to share with them the realities of a parents’ past. And so, for children whose parents have experienced some form of trauma in the past, it may be helpful to share at least some of that experience with the child. This can be extremely painful, and at times ill-advised, depending on the nature of the trauma. The difficulty lies with the frequently observed fact that children whose parents conceal much of the pain of their past often have some kind of awareness of the history of trauma, although the awareness is vague. It is as if the parents’ traumatic past exists behind a veil; it is known but also not known. I would recommend to parents who have survived interpersonal trauma, particularly childhood interpersonal trauma, that they seek psychotherapeutic counsel, so as to manage very carefully the process of disclosure. It is often the case that children, having a vague awareness of their parents’ painful history, carry within themselves a constant tension; an anxiety about the unknown presence, which has a profound and chronic influence on their lives. The parents’ revelation of the traumatic past to the child may assist the child in making sense of the unknown and anxiety-provoking aspects of the parents’ history. This would need to be very carefully managed, considering the nature of the revelation.

Aside from the pain and anxiety which could reside in a family stemming from the parents’ traumatic history, it is also important to consider the frequently observed defensive processes which pervade the lives of trauma survivors post-traumatically. Very often, in their efforts to cope with the painful pasts, trauma survivors employ a defensive process called dissociation. Basically, from a psychological point of view, dissociation involves defensively disconnecting from the awareness of distressing emotions relating to both the traumatic past as well as the painful present. The tendency to avoid all thoughts and feelings which cause distress is almost never truly helpful in the long-term, although it may help us get through the day. Parents who struggle to engage with their thoughts, feelings and memories which cause them pain very frequently find that the unexpressed thoughts and feelings surface in their behaviours, and primarily in their closest interpersonal relationships. As such, the children of survivors of trauma often find that the traumatized parent demonstrates emotions which the child cannot completely understand, because these emotions are not linked with anything that the parent talks about. The emotions come out through the parents’ heightened emotional states and through their bodies, in the form of psychosomatic difficulties. Such heightened emotional states and bodily difficulties often make no sense to the child. This element of confusion creates anxiety, and a feeling of a lack of personal safety in children. Children of survivors may also experience considerable guilt, as they frequently try to make sense of their parents’ pain with reference to themselves.

What I am hoping the reader will take from this message is the importance of talking to ones children. Although it is not appropriate to over-include very young children in ones internal pain, over time, as children develop their emotional resources, it become possible and even important to gradually assist children in coming to understand the emotional context of the parents’ struggles. Talk to your children. Trust their capacity to manage the difficult feelings which they may experience when they learn of your difficult past, and get help for yourself and your children so as to face the reality of trauma in a healthy and careful way.

In the next post on this subject I’ll shed some light on my approach to my therapeutic approach to the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

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