- People can pass their trauma symptoms to their children through molecular switches attached to their genes that activate genetic vulnerabilities.
- Compared to boys, girls more often develop emotional disorders when their fathers have had post-traumatic stress disorder.
- It’s wise to delay having children until you fully heal your trauma.
My parents had severe life-long psychological struggles and I had a bad childhood—a very nasty nature-nurture combination. My life should have been a disaster. Amazingly, I become an emotionally stable, high-functioning adult. Not surprisingly, I became a clinical psychologist.
Why was I spared? All my life I assumed that I got extremely lucky in getting both my mother’s and father’s best DNA due to the genetic “roll of the dice” at my conception. This is possible because, of course, I only got half of my mother’s and father’s DNA. I was grateful for never having psychotic experiences or deviant behaviors, and I was not aware of ever being depressed.
I was always driven to work hard to create a stable family and home that I never had. It was always comforting to know that my daughter would have a better life than me, because she would have better DNA and a better childhood. I felt certain about this because we created a perfect childhood for her, and she should have inherited resilience from me and my wife (there was no mental illness in my wife’s family).
My basic beliefs about my daughter, and about psychology, came crashing down when we discovered that she survived a near-lethal overdose at age 16. It was sheer luck that she survived. Her psychiatrist said she was the most lethal teen suicide attempter he had ever seen survive and told us she had been cutting her wrists and feeling suicidal for much of the prior two years. In the following months, we lived in fear. We had had vivid, intrusive memories of not being able to wake her up for school on that dreadful morning, and we often peeked into her room to make sure she was still breathing. Many mornings we feared we would wake up to find her dead in her bed, especially when she stayed in bed late. It was a cruel irony that I now needed to save my daughter from suicide, and it was luck that I knew how. This was my main area of expertise, having published numerous academic articles on self-injury and suicide. Unfortunately, she refused therapy because it was “stupid”—irrelevant for her biological problem—and she insisted she would kill herself in the near future. We felt very helpless and confused. We kept thinking, “What did we do wrong?”
This all made no sense until I learned about the science of epigenetics, which is one explanation for intergenerational trauma. Attached to our genes are complex molecular “switches” that interact to activate or suppress genetic vulnerabilities. We are all born with some of our epigenetic switches in the on position, inherited from our parents or grandparents whose early life experiences flipped them on. At age 46, I realized that I had unresolved post-traumatic stress disorder from my childhood, and that it flipped on some of her emotion switches.
The way she experienced her teen years sounded so much like my subjective and objective reality during my childhood. So often, I was alone, abandoned, and in dangerous situations, which made me feel alone, invisible, sad, and anxious. My thoughts and emotions were understandable reactions to the bad situations I had gone through. And our new reality was that my daughter frequently felt as if she was alone, abandoned, and in danger. Her description of her thoughts and emotions had an eerie similarity to my thoughts and feelings when I was a child. She also mentioned persistently feeling alone, invisible, sad, and anxious, but somehow, worse than what I felt. She was suicidal and had panic attacks and I never had either. She was suffering so bad even though her childhood was objectively so good.
I couldn’t understand why her struggle was so much worse than mine, since my genes and childhood environment were both worse than hers. I found out that females are simply biologically more vulnerable than males to emotional problems. Hormones like estrogen and testosterone can activate or suppress the epigenetic switches that influence brain development. This means some of my switches had been in a half-way position and some of those switches flipped all the way on when she got them from me, because she is female.
In my work as a psychologist, I saw many loving parents struggle with self-doubt and guilt because so many theories say that parents are usually partly to blame for how their children turn out. Now I know that parent behaviors are not necessarily one of the causes. A common situation is when children are extremely sensitive because the “roll of the dice” gave them their mother’s and father’s worst DNA. When this happens, many normal parent behaviors can harm their highly sensitive child, even though the same behaviors would not harm most children. In my situation and theirs, we are only guilty of ignorance of how we could have more closely tuned in to our children’s special needs. We need to let go of our guilt and focus on being effective parents with what we know now.
I now know that I should have fully healed my childhood traumas before trying to have children. Many men who pass their epigenetic emotional vulnerabilities to their daughters do not have fully diagnosable psychological disorders. Like me, they are high-functioning men whose symptoms do not interfere much with life. Their trauma symptoms are partially resolved, and they use grit to push through life, taking care of their responsibilities regardless of how they feel. New research strongly suggests that successful exposure-based PTSD therapy can fix parents’ PTSD epigenetic problems, and thereby lower their children’s risk of emotional disorders.
I strongly urge you to protect your future children by fully treating your childhood traumas before you try to conceive. There are scientifically-supported therapies that work very well, even if the traumatic events happened decades ago. Fortunately, my daughter is now doing very well, and we are blessed to have a second chance.