Trauma is an emotional response to a horrific event like an accident, physical assault, terrorist attack or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. The individual may seem healthy and adapted but, may be hiding deeper feelings and fears below the surface.
Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Post-traumatic or persistent traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a chronic and disabling disorder that can develop following an event that involves an injury, an accident, a sexual assault or a life changing event.
Reactions to a life changing traumatic event can even affect the next generation. Trans-generational trauma was first studied in response to the children of Holocaust survivors but has been useful in understanding the pain of other victims and their families’ who have experienced traumatic events. “Survivor syndrome” is a condition that can be transmitted from one generation to the next. The traumatized individual, in understandably trying to “move on” with their life, do not realize the extent to which they’ve been changed and warped by their trauma.
Children, growing up in an environment in which one or both parents have been stressed and have unresolved PTSD will be traumatized. A trauma survivor’s children will often describe cognitive and emotional problems that affect their quality of life. Survivor’s offspring can experience: sleep problems, distrust and paranoia, chronic despair, a pervasive feeling of danger, relationship problems, separation anxiety, the inability to express feelings, confusion, physical symptoms, over involvement and over-protectiveness of one’s family. These issues have been studied and observed in the children and even grand-children of Holocaust survivors, and more recently in the survivors and children of the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Eastern Europe.
These individuals did not experience the trauma but, act and live life as if they did. They were raised by someone transmitting a world photoview that’s been shaped by a very negative experience and unresolved persistent traumatic stress disorder. Trans-generational trauma has also been observed in the children of soldiers and survivors of terrorist attacks, such as 911.
Discovering and regaining control of your own unique emotional self is the goal. Individuating from a parent or grand-parent’s trauma involves realization and understanding. A separate self is open to the realization that it’s not your trauma and the ongoing understanding that you can still be close and connected to a surviving parent without being consumed by their issues. Learning to express feeling is a major hurdle and of great importance in resolving this transmitted trauma. Guilty feelings are a large issue when the adult child begins to find their own voice.
Many children of survivors seem to go into the helping professions, as they realize that their experiences can help others through both PTSD and trans-generational post traumatic stress disorder.
Andrew S. Holzman MPS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Family Tree Counseling Associates. He has worked with individuals, couples and families for over 30 years.
Family Tree Counseling Associates