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Intergenerational Trauma:

How Child Abuse Patterns Repeat Across Generations

Ryan McGuire / Stocksnap
Source: Ryan McGuire / Stocksnap

Child sexual abuse has both short- and long-term consequences. These effects last long after the victim leaves home, as she carries the symptoms into her relationship with her intimate partner, friends, colleagues, and with her children. Selma Fraiberg and colleagues, in their paper, “Ghosts in the Nursery”, examined the intergenerational transmission of trauma and the mechanisms for passing down a mother’s traumatic wounds to her children. She questioned why some mothers with histories of abuse repeat and re-enact the patterns of abuse with their children while other mothers are able to shield their children from abuse and offer emotional and physical protection and comfort. Fraiberg and her colleagues contend that a mother’s inability to meet and respond to her child’s needs is a “mother whose own cries have not been heard.” A mother’s unresolved childhood trauma can prevent her from feeling the pain, sadness, anger, and/or deep distrust connected to her own childhood abuse. When these feelings are repressed it creates a barrier between her and her child which interferes with the mother’s ability to express compassion, be responsive, and show empathy.

During the abuse phase, the defense mechanisms of repression are used to protect against overwhelming and threatening feelings. However, the defenses a mother employs as a child to ward off the feelings of powerlessness, despair, fear, and/or anger during and after the abuse are the same defenses that later render her incapable of responding to her children. The degree to which a mother re-enacts her abusive past with her child is related to her ability or inability to access both the memory and the feelings associated with the abuse. A mother who is numbed and disconnected from the feelings related to her abusive past may have difficulty displaying warmth, exhibiting empathy, and responding to their children’s physical and social/emotional needs. A mother may also become immobile and unable to respond to her child’s distress because it triggers her own unresolved childhood feelings of discomfort and pain. Thus, to avoid and protect herself from emergent feelings she ignores her child’s call for help and comfort. Thus, re-enacting the trauma on the newest generation.

Family theorists attempt to explain how patterns of childhood are re-enacted in our adult lives. Patterns of communicating and relating can be passed down across generations horizontally and vertically from one generation to the next. Some of these patterns are positive such as having the ability to form strong bonds with other people and cultivate relationships that enhance and support our strengths. However, other patterns can be toxic and continue to cause harm in our lives and the lives of the people we are close to. It is important to examine the length of the abuse, the relationship to the perpetrator, the degree and severity of the abuse, and the amount of protection received if and when the child disclosed the abuse. The latter criteria can help in assessing the short and long-term impact of the child abuse and how it will impact our choices. That being said, not all individuals pass their wounds onto others in a cycle of re-enacting their negative childhood patterns. Some individuals have made a commitment not to cause harm to others and have had enough positive experiences with people in their lives to use them as alternative models to relate to others and avoid repeating dysfunctional patterns. No one goes through life unscathed and we all have a story to tell and a story that we carry. Therapy helps to unravel the story so we can liberate ourselves from the past and live more authentic lives in the present.


Excerpt From:

Gil, T. (2018). Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children: Mothering. Resilience, and Protecting the Next Generation. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

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