Many might assume that the intergenerational transmission of trauma from parent to child occurs through abuse or neglect, but this is not always the case.
Trauma can also be passed on through changes in gene expression. This is known as the epigenetic transmission of trauma. Epigenetics is understood as changes in gene function that are heritable and not associated with changes in one’s DNA sequence (Dupont, Armant, & Brenner, 2009). It is thought that epigenetic changes can occur as a result of extreme stress, such as in the case of parents with histories of trauma.
Heritability of Trauma
Research with children of Holocaust survivors has indicated that children can inherit the traumatic memories of their parents. The evidence is so compelling that some have argued children can inherit the unconscious minds of their parents. Some children of Holocaust survivors have even been known to have genocide-themed nightmares. Although it can be argued the children receive Holocaust imagery through shared stories and narratives, it does not explain their increased vulnerability to stress-related diagnoses such as complex trauma (C-PTSD) and posttraumatic stress (PTSD).
While may be more difficult to prove the inheritance of traumatic memories, we do know that psychological stress can affect gene expression patterns via the nervous system.
While may be more difficult to prove the inheritance of traumatic memories, we do know that psychological stress can affect gene expression patterns via the nervous system. It may be that the disposition to develop PTSD and C-PTSD is passed down through an epigenetic route (Kellermann, 2013).
When Symptoms Occur Without a History of Trauma
It is important to understand that trauma can be inherited independently of difficult family circumstances. A child can develop anxiety, depression, or other stress-related issues such as PTSD as a result of an inherited vulnerability rather than direct trauma.
Research has shown that secure mother-child attachment is key for childhood development (Meins, Bureau, & Fernyhough, 2018). A recent study shows that “good-enough” parenting is adequate for a child to develop a secure attachment to its mother. What this means is that perfect parenting is not required for the child to grow up securely attached, a state that is associated with the best outcomes for mental health (Lehigh University, 2019).
The research has two sides. On one, the research shows us that we do not require perfect parenting and a stress-free environment to be secure and healthy. The flip side of this research is that some children will inherit trauma even with a gentle upbringing. In these cases, a child can inherit symptoms of trauma, including nightmares and anxiety, even without being exposed to trauma.
Can Epigenetic Changes Lead to Positive Outcomes?
While the news that trauma can be passed down despite good parenting may sound disheartening, epigenetics also creates changes in a positive way as well. When we have good nutrition and are raised in a nurturing and loving environment, over generations, epigenetic changes can also occur for the better. Researchers investigating epigenetics in animal models have found that rat pups with mothers who lick and groom them often are more likely to grow up to be calm, while pups who are not groomed frequently by their mothers may grow up to be anxious (Kirkpatrick, 2017).
What we know from epigenetic research as it relates to the intergenerational transmission of trauma is that we can have at least some influence on our children’s ability to be calm and resilient to stress. By providing a loving and nurturing environment for them, we can diminish the intensity of inherited trauma. Each succeeding generation can whittle away at the effects of trauma through consistent nurturing and loving parenting. Trauma does not have to continue from one generation to the next.
- Dupont, C., Armant, D. R., & Brenner, C. A. (2009). Epigenetics: Definition, mechanisms and clinical perspective. Seminars in Reproductive Medicine, 27(5), 351-357. doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1237423
- Kellermann, N. P. (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: Can nightmares be inherited?. The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 50(1), 33-39. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24029109
- Kirkpatrick, B. (2017, December 12). Cuddling can leave positive epigenetic traces on your baby’s DNA. Retrieved from https://www.whatisepigenetics.com/cuddling-can-leave-positive-epigenetic-traces-babys-dna
- Lehigh University. (2019, May 8). ‘Good enough’ parenting is good enough, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190508134511.htm
- Meins, E., Bureau, J. F., & Fernyhough, C. (2018). Mother–child attachment from infancy to the preschool years: Predicting security and stability. Child Development, 89(3), 1,022-1,038. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12778
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