In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

Whose Neurosis is This, Anyway?

Trans-generational Transmission of Trauma

Studies have shown that there is a permeability that exists between a child’s psyche and that of the mother (caretaker), a kind of “osmosis” that allows for the passing of ideas and affects from the mother/caretaker to the child. While much of what is transmitted may be healthy and normal for the developing child, that is obviously not the case with trauma. In this scenario, what is transmitted to the child from the mother/caretaker may interfere with the child’s psychological growth and developing identity.

Even before researching and writing my book on the replacement child (to be published this year) I had been struck by the way a parent’s unresolved issue(s), or “unfinished business” as I refer to it, often finds its way into the psyche of the child, even when the child has had no direct knowledge of the issue, problem, conflict, or trauma suffered by the parent.

Without things ever being said, without actually knowing, children often ‘know.’ In many cases, children intuitively understand what has happened to their parents. Family secrets can backfire because nothing is ever really hidden. This osmotic passing of information between generations is somehow planted subconsciously into children. And often what has happened is hidden away because it’s unacceptable. To acknowledge it is to admit to the pain and the trauma. But children know and sometimes reenact that very same trauma---as if to somehow finish the family business.

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Vamik Volkan has written about deposit representations “which are representations of self or others deposited into the child's developing self -representation by traumatized parents.” And this is applicable to all kinds of trauma but specifically those pertaining to loss. “It is in the form of such representations that replacement children carry the legacy of a parental or generational distortion of mourning after traumatic history.”

In their paper Trans-generational Transmission and Deposited Representations: Psychological Burdens Visited by One Generation upon Another, Volkan and Greer describe how “a mother has an internalized formed image of her child who has died. She deposits this image into the developing self-representation of her next-born child, usually born after the first child’s death.” The replacement child then serves as the “reservoir” where the deceased child will be kept “alive”.

The replacement child is assigned (mostly unconsciously) specific psychological tasks in order to preserve what is deposited. Inevitably, this presents quite a dilemma for replacement children whose own identity has been high jacked---they can’t be who they are in their own right, they obviously can’t be the dead person, and yet somehow they’re expected to embody the representation of the deceased child from the parent’s perspective.

Trans-generational transmission on a societal level utilizes a similar mechanism, except that here the transmission occurs on a larger scale; the transmission of group trauma from generation to generation. Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry Vamik Volkan has extensively studied larger group dynamics, such as ethnic groups, and has found that, when a group suffers a catastrophe at the hands of an enemy, the self-images of individuals within the group are traumatized by this common event. The second generation then becomes the recipient of these traumatized images.

The second generation and those generations that follow are “assigned’ specific tasks as well; for example, mourning for the losses of their parents or ancestors, or taking revenge on the present group representing their parents’ enemies. Volkan emphasizes that “it is this trans-generational conveyance of long-lasting “tasks” that perpetuates the cycle of societal trauma… whatever its expression in a given generation, keeping alive the mental representation of the ancestors’ trauma remains the core task. Further, since the task is shared, each new generation’s burden reinforces the large-group identity and keeps its complexities “alive.”

So whether on the individual or societal level, the issue seems to be about breaking the cycle of trauma altogether, and thus freeing all participants from having to identify with a traumatic and/or unresolved past. On a societal level, this would certainly have a healing effect on a world full of “holocausts” --- wars, slavery, and genocide. On an individual level, breaking the cycle of depositing parental trauma of any kind would free children from the burden of carrying the “unfinished business” of their parents’ lives. From the perspective of the replacement child, breaking the cycle of unresolved parental grief and mourning and the consequences that result from it, would allow subsequent children to be who they are, to own their own identity, without the encumbering load of pathological and unrealistic parental expectations.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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