The Past is Present: From Generation to Generation to Generation

Studies of Complex Trauma continue to demonstrate that Parents, Grandparents, Great-Grandparents who grew up in chaotic, abusive, neglectful, or unsafe environments pass on the effects of their environment to their children. Since the late 1800s and the emergence of psychoanalysis intergenerational trauma has always been a focus in treatment though studies of the children and grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust began to validate the depth of how complex trauma is handed down from one generation to the next.

  • Individuals with parents who meet PTSD criteria often describe damaged, preoccupied parents who are emotionally limited.
  • Symptoms in parents such as traumatic reliving, emotional numbing and dissociative phenomena interfere with a child’s ability to develop a reasonable sense of safety and predictability in the world.
  • These parents are limited in their ability to respond optimally during key developmental milestones and to instill a more comprehensive understanding of the world.
  • The parent suffering with PTSD  has difficulty modeling a healthy sense of identity and autonomy, the ability to self-soothe, or to manage intense emotions.
  • Parents with PTSD have a hard time maintaining a balanced perspective when life challenges arise.

A news item appeared on the front page of the Reno Evening Gazette to chronicle a divorce being granted to a woman who was fairly well-known in the Social circles of not only Reno, but in the far reaches of the greater state of Nevada.  She was one who spent time with then Senator George Nixon and his family at the Nixon summer home on Lake Tahoe.  Her Father was a well-known Cattle Baron who founded the First National Bank of Nevada.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the year was 1909, an era when women were not granted divorces much less given full custody of their children. The woman in this case was justified because she was proven to be the victim of extreme domestic battery.  On at least one occasion she was nearly strangled to death, while her sons who were aged 3 and 5, were witness to this and many more episodes of drunken assault, name calling, degradation, and  a host of other indignities an abused spouse endures.  I wonder if had it not been for her social status or an eye witness to testify to the husband’s aggression if the judge would have preached to the woman that she probably had asked for it and to suck it up.

To illustrate the point for this posting, the couple described above were my great-grandparents.  Their sons were my grandfather who was 3  during the worst of it, and my great uncles (identical twins) aged 5, who grew up as successful professionals, Nevada ranchers, and state politicians in their own right.  To the uninformed observer, the boys and then later, their little sister, grew to be affluent, well-adjusted, and well-mannered.  Church, Masons, Improvement Clubs, Choir.

All three boys developed alcoholism.   There were broken marriages and stories of unbridled rage in the home of their little sister.  My cousin told me that one time, her mother became so angry during dinner that she stood up and turned the table over with all the food, dishes, and silver flying everywhere.  My cousin ran away from home at the age of 15, married young, and carried on the family’s dark, inner traditions.  And so on.

My grandfather was known to be mean and degrading to my grandmother who was also an alcoholic.   He was one whose moral compass was, shall I say, decidedly out of calibration.

At an early age my grandmother had witnessed the death of two siblings; her older sister who died as a result of burns after accidentally setting herself on fire, and a younger brother who ingested poison and died in his mother’s arms in the flat of a tenement in West Boston near Scollay Square.  On both occasions, according to my grandmother, there was not much in the way of supervision, Both of her parents struggled with their own alcoholism and did menial work outside the home, while my grandmother somehow survived as perhaps a pioneer latchkey kid.

In her childhood, my mother witnessed much in the way of drunken confrontations between her parents, and in many ways became a surrogate parent to her little brother.  Both siblings grew to rely on alcohol for relief.  My mother became abstinent from alcohol and tranquilizers in her late 40s while my uncle was not  able to put the stuff down.  And so on, for 2 more generations.

For emphasis, let me point out that Complex Trauma does not arise out of a vacuum.    If we look at Principle # 1 in the Handy Guide for the Every Day Warrior, we see that not only is our past present in all of our day in and day out interactions, the pasts of our parents, their parents, and THEIR parents are present to a good extent.  What I have learned about how the concept of transgenerational trauma has unfolded in my own family of origin has enhanced my understanding of how we can go about diffusing the ill effects of  the dark side of “family tradition”.

On the other hand, we want to remember that for each troublesome experience in our lives, we have also learned survival mechanisms that have served us well and kept things from getting worse.  The ability to bounce back.  To “turn it around”.  To actually change the past as in Principle # 2 in the Handy Guide.  Well, not to literally change it, but to change and soften our perspective of it either through self-help or work with a trained therapist.

Attached to this posting is a 10 question survey entitled the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale which was developed several years ago and has become landmark in predicting physical illness in those who have experienced a number of Adverse Childhood Experiences.  I invite readers to take this survey.  And then complete the Resilience Scale to be amazed at how well you have been able to cope.

To check out if you are affected by intergenerational trauma, follow this link to the online screening.

Now that you know your “risk”, take the time to identify your strengths!  Your ability to bounce back and take a stand!

The Resilience Scale 25 for Workshop

I trust that you will find and discover your strengths!

Additional studies focused on Transgenerational Trauma abound.

  • White Bison is a Native American non-profit that focuses on healing the effects of intergenerational trauma, particularly offspring of those who survived the horrors of the Boarding School Era.


  • There are countless research articles about transgenerational trauma stemming from slavery are available online using search terms “transgenerational trauma slavery”.
  • Here is an article from Scientific American that takes a closer look at ongoing studies of subsequent generations of Holocaust Survivors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s