Families in Psychiatry

Family separations and the intergenerational transmission of trauma


When viewed through the lens of attachment theory, the forced separation of a child from its caretakers is a potent form of childhood trauma. Joanna E. Chambers, MD, summarizes and explains John Bowlby’s attachment theory as a neurobiological system originating from an infant’s connection to the primary caretaker. This connection becomes a lifelong model for all subsequent relationships.

Any traumatic disruptions in the development of this system puts the child at risk of developing “insecure attachment.” This insecure attachment can lead to lifelong emotional problems for the child, affecting the quality of subsequent marital relationships, relationships to children, and the development of personality disorders.

In addition, it correlates to the development of psychiatric illnesses, specifically depression and anxiety. There is also a plausible biological basis for attachment theory. Both oxytocin, a hormone released in human bonding, and social interaction itself have been shown to decrease cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol has been found to negatively affect infant brain development, Dr. Chambers argued.5

Given those significant effects of childhood trauma, it is understandable that there exists a concept of “intergenerational transmission of trauma.” Originating from studies of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, researchers Amy Lehrner, PhD, and Rachel Yehuda, PhD, conceptualize intergenerational transmission of trauma as the intergenerational impact of prenatal PTSD.6 This impact is expressed as a predisposition in the offspring of Holocaust survivors to developing PTSD, difficulties in individuation and separation, higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders, and higher rates of physical health issues.

Although they are complex and clearly multidetermined, Dr. Yehuda and Dr. Lehrner also summarize plausible biological theories for the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Epigenetic differences in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, circadian rhythm, urinary and plasma cortisol levels, glucocorticoid sensitivity, and regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene all have been found in Holocaust offspring with parental PTSD, in contrast to offspring without parental PTSD.6

What can we as psychiatrists do?

We are uniquely equipped to take several concrete steps to help mitigate the effects of these traumatic events. Among them, we can:

  • Provide opportunities for the child and the family to process their experience. This can be profoundly healing and can help minimize the devastating psychological effects of this separation.
  • Become acquainted with the concept of intergenerational transmission of resilience.
  • Work with trauma survivors to develop their own personal narratives and cultural rituals surrounding the trauma.6
  • Encourage second- and third-generation descendants to engage in artistic expression of the trauma, visit places of importance to their parents, and engage in social and political activism. These are all expressions of resilience in the offspring of trauma victims.6

In summary, recent U.S. political events have caused thousands of children to be forcibly separated from their parents. Those separations are traumatic and can have lifelong psychological implications for the children and their offspring. It is important to provide quality mental health treatment to these children with a specific focus on treating PTSD and processing the traumatic experience. Psychological treatment can help mitigate the effects of the traumatic separation and create a sense of resiliency.

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