Sunday, October 1, 2017

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

We often hear that certain things, such as cocaine addiction or violent behavior, are inherited. Then there is the fascinating idea of epigenetics which, reminiscent of Lamarck, indicates that behavior can change genetic expression and can then be passed down in the genes. What seems to go under-emphasized outside psychological psychoanalytic circles is the intergenerational transmission of trauma, particularly relational (attachment) trauma. Schore puts intergenerational transmission of trauma like this: “...the infant is matching the rhythmic structures of the mother’s dysregulated arousal states.”

While two excellent, long-term studies have shown that violent behavior needs both the genetic vulnerability and the environmental exposure to violence in the home (the latter which is also a relational trauma, the relational trauma of a parent not seeing the child’s feelings, not regulating the child’s feelings, etc), why is it not also likely that drug addiction is not simply a genetic vulnerability but also a way of regulating one’s emotions? The addicted parent could not be sufficiently present to recognize, attune and regulate the child’s emotions and thus that child grows up with its own dysregulation, perhaps later likewise finding some soothing from substances. This dysregulation is not simply genetic. It is an intergenerational transmission of trauma, just like with a child who is sexually abused and unprotected and un-comforted, maybe even un-validated in her experience and pain, who grows up and becomes unable to protect her own child from sexual abuse.

A parent’s dissociated states from unbearable affect can create a dissociation in her infant (and disorganized attachment). The infant is then at risk for “a lack of integration of sensorimotor experiences, reactions, and functions” as seen in the common sequelae of somatic disorders (such as pelvic pain, fibromyalgia, migraines) resulting from childhood sexual abuse. Does one then say that sexual abuse of children is inherited? Not usually. Perhaps other behaviors, such as substance abuse, and even anxiety and depression, show up in the next generation and the generation after that because a parent who is not present (drunk, dissociated, anxious, or depressed) transmits these same self states to the infant, right brain to right brain.

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