How do trauma symptoms pass to the next generation?


As a clinician, I have had anecdotal experiences that the trauma experienced by a parent is passed on to a child who presents with many trauma symptoms despite not having experienced the initial trauma. We have witnessed what looks like this kind of transmission in places like Rwanda where children born after the genocide seem to experience many of the same symptoms of their parents.

Thus far, the data about generational transmission has been mixed. Looking at 2nd and 3rd generations of holocaust survivors, some research indicates that later generations can be affected; some research indicates no secondary traumatization. The problem with this research is that much is focused on the content of transmitted symptoms rather than the process. In the latest issue of Psychological Trauma (v. 5:4, 384-391), Lotem Giladi and Terece Bell have published a study looking at both content and process of trauma symptom transmission (“Protective Factors for Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Among Second and Third Generation Holocaust Survivors”). The authors hope to have a clearer picture of risk and protector factors. As they say,

“The research question was not whether 2G and 3G experienced greater psychopathology than controls, but rather why some of them still carry some Holocaust-related psychological distress whereas others do not.” (384)

These researchers tested whether psychological concepts of differentiation of self (a Bowen concept indicating the ability to balance need for connectedness with family and need for being a separate self) and family communication (a previous study indicated that 2G holocaust survivors suppressed communication of negative emotion around their parents).

What did they find? 2G and 3G both showed greater levels of secondary trauma than controls (though all amounts of STS were in normal range) and surprisingly, the 3G group did not show less secondary trauma than did the 2G group. Indeed, greater differentiation of the self and better family communication among the generations of holocaust survivors positively correlated with  few secondary trauma symptoms.

So, how do trauma symptoms get transmitted to the next generation? We do not really know yet but one possible answer is that trauma tends to influence emotion regulation, anxiety regulation, and thus decreased self-soothing behaviors. This may get passed on to the next generation via suppressed negative feelings (children who do not want to make matters worse) and identification with the parent’s distress (and partially responsible for it).

For those readers who might wonder if their own trauma is causing secondary trauma in children, consider these things:

  • Most of the 2G and 3G holocaust survivor families are not terribly harmed. Most do well. So, it is not a given that your family is being harmed by your trauma symptoms
  • Open communication about the trauma symptoms and impact on family (without laying blame!) is likely helpful. Also communicate how coping with trauma symptoms can also teach a family some positive lessons as well (patience, gentleness, boundaries, etc.)

7 Comments

Filed under Abuse, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology, Uncategorized

7 responses to “How do trauma symptoms pass to the next generation?

  1. Andrew J. Schmutzer

    Thanks for this post, Phil. Utterly fascinating.

    I’ve been studying the trans-generational nature of sexual abuse. I think the “suggestability factor” of parents’ attitudes, beliefs, habits, animated coping skills, and relational environment can “re-enact” the drama of their trauma in the children. This relational-ecosystem is complex and has been missing in most of the trans-generational studies I’ve seen.

    Grateful and sobered.

    • Rebecca W

      Interesting. I was just going to ask about how this plays out with Moms who were sexually abused, their untreated complex trauma and how that is possibly passed to their children ..daughters especially. Wish there were studies about this dynamic…

      • Good to remember that the transmission of trauma is a low probability (doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study it or work to prevent it).

  2. Rebecca W

    Interesting. I was just going to ask about how this plays out with Moms who were sexually abused, their untreated complex trauma and how that is possibly passed to their children ..daughters especially. Wish there were studies about this dynamic …

  3. Andrew J. Schmutzer

    The complex relationship between CORRELATION and CAUSATION in transmission of trauma needs to be thought through far more. It’s one thing to analyse a DNA strand for trauma-related ‘breaks,’ but we should also consider factors in the socio-religious environment that reinforse certain behaviors. Here is some of the historic complexity of AIDS numbers in Africa that epidemiologists in the West, unfamiliar with tribal life and customs, are unprepared to consider or find politically incorrect to critique.

  4. Rebecca W

    Thank you Phil.

    If it is unlikely that complex trauma symptoms can be passed to the next generation, does that mean a person who has symptoms of complex trauma likely eperienced trauma even if they can’t remember it?

    What else could cause complex trauma symptoms?

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