Intergenerational Trauma: What Children Inherit From Parents

Meeting of Leon Slominski and Sonia Reich. Photos by Zbigniew Bzdak ©2006

Meeting of Leon Slominski (left) with Howard and Sonia Reich. Photo by Zbigniew Bzdak ©2006

The idea that trauma can be handed down from generation to generation is a no-brainer, literally. Children’s brains are full of chemicals and neurotransmitters specifically designed to help them learn — and fast. From a brain science perspective the inheritance of intergenerational trauma can begin Day 1 as neural pathways embed facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.

Later, as children start to mature they model the adult influences around them. Starting at an incredibly early age what kids learn, see, observe and experience programs them for life. In other words, intergenerational trauma and what children inherit from parents begins immediately and then deepens and becomes thoroughly entrenched throughout childhood.

If a child is raised by someone who’s been traumatised — and has adapted coping mechanisms to get through daily life — then the child is automatically exposed and can unconsciously pick up the same or similar approaches to life that include fear, worry, anxiety, panic, or other post-trauma behaviors. The scientific documentation of intergenerational trauma is vast and irrefutable.

Recently, I spoke with Howard Reich whose mother, Sonia, is a Holocaust trauma survivor ultimately diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD. When I asked how Sonia’s posttraumatic stress affected him as a child Reich offers,

There’s been a lot of research that shows that behaviors of PTSD get handed down through generations. So, the second and third generations, even the fourth generations can enact some of the behaviors even though some of those subsequent generations did not experience the trauma itself…. The story is always there with me. I think that since I’ve done this research the stories are with me consciously. 

The “research” Howard references is work to write a book and make a documentary called, Prisoner of Her Past: A Son’s Memoir.

A Son’s Courage

In his terrifically sensitive book Reich searches for the key to unlock Sonia’s odd behavior: A survivor of extreme childhood trauma Sonia is now an elderly widow who, suddenly one night, evacuates her apartment (carrying a bag of her most essential belongings) and runs down the street to escape the people trying to kill her. There’s just one problem: There’s no one chasing Sonia except the people in her mind.

Thus Howard sets off on a year-long quest of meetings with doctors, psychiatrists, and specialists trying to determine what’s happening to Sonia. Ultimately, she receives a diagnosis of late-onset PTSD. The terror in her past of a little girl hunted by Nazis has finally broken through to the present. Howard explains,

Doctors often call Sonia’s symptoms subclinical: She had these symptoms of PTSD but she was managing it and leading pretty much a full and productive life. After 2001 she ceased to be able to manage those symptoms. It became full-blown PTSD with many symptoms. She no longer was able to distinguish between past traumas and current events. Even today, though she doesn’t think it’s 1942 she acts as if it is. She knows she’s in the United States and that Barak Obama is president but she thinks everyone is trying to kill her and she believes there’s a yellow Star of David on her clothes. So the past and present are totally intermingled in her consciousness and she can’t separate them. And in addition to that, unlike many PTSD patients, she is not self-aware. She does not know she’s having PTSD. She doesn’t know she has any mental illness. If you told her that she would deny it. This is just how she sees the world. To sum it up, the traumas that she spent so much time trying to suppress and mostly being successful in carrying on now she can’t suppress anymore and she can’t be successful in running her life. 

In a bid to help his mother reclaim a functional life (and to better understand his mother and her past) Reich pieces together Sonia’s story by studying the history of both her personal family and journey (even bringing one of her cousins from Poland to the U.S. for a visit), plus the invasion of her town during the war. Alternating between a view of Reich growing up as the son of Holocaust survivors and the heart-wrenching saga of his parents’ individual search for safety and freedom in a world that threatened both, Prisoner of Her Past is a moving tribute to how trauma affects generations on many levels. But that’s not all reserved for negative affects.

Prisoner of Her Past is also a tribute to the many positive things that intergenerational trauma causes children to inherit from parents, including courage, tenacity, a steely will, and the determination to do what it takes to reclaim control in an out of control world.

Describing why he wrote Prisoner of Her Past and undertook a very emotional trip back to Poland and his mother’s childhood village, Reich shares,

I started to write about this subject kind of like a last resort not as a first resort. As I talked to all these doctors, experts, rabbis, lawyers – when there was nothing else I could do for my mother except have her in this safe, secure place near my house where I can visit all the time… When I ran out of all the options that’s when I started to write. It’s as if my whole career up to this was in preparation for this. 

This one statement encapsulates so much of the good that can be inherited along with the bad: A strength, creativity, and commitment to making a choice and taking an action — to finding answers when there seem to be none — that is the hallmark of successful survival. Sonia survived horrific experiences and then came to the United States determined to create a loving home, family, and business with her husband. She succeeded and in doing so taught her son not only what it means to carry the wounds of the past but also, for many functional years — and despite her eventual diagnosis, how to create and maintain control in the present.

While the transferred negative weight of family history, PTSD symptoms, and post-trauma coping mechanisms are easy to identify and important to mourn, we must also recognize that there are other aspects of intergenerational trauma that children inherit from parents: There are also terrific elements that traumatized parents can pass on to their kids, and their children can transform into beautiful objects of art, loyalty, support and love.


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