The legacy of trauma: Parents’ emotional stress may impact children’s biology

Discover the transgenerational nature of trauma, examples of parent-to-child trauma transmission, warning signs and tips for how to break the cycle.

By Rany Moran

“Like father, like son”, “like mother, like daughter”. These expressions are so commonplace that we rarely think twice about the connotations of such an observation. Most of the time, we just think “aw that’s adorable, they look so alike!” However, there are instances where what children inherit from parents can go way beyond physical features or surface-level behaviours. It can be much deeper, like personality traits, intelligence, judgement, emotionality and unfortunately, even trauma.

What is trauma and how is it transgenerational?

Trauma is not an illness or disease, but an automatic and instinctive response to real or perceived negativity. This involves the brain and autonomic nervous system, and can be triggered by fear, stress, anger, sadness and even loneliness.

There are a growing number of studies that discuss the effects of trauma, and how it can reverberate down the generations through epigenetics. An example of inherited, transgenerational trauma can be found in an article by the BBC*, which found that while the sons and grandsons of Prisoners of War had not suffered the hardships of their fathers or grandfathers, they suffered from higher rates of mortality than the wider population. This obscure type of inheritance, through the process of epigenetics, considers how DNA is expressed, and how that modification can be passed down particularly through the male line of families*. Another 2015 study by the Biological Psychiatry* also states that the children of the survivors of the Holocaust had epigenetic changes to a gene that was linked to their levels of cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response. High concentrations of stress hormone cortisol in the body can affect important DNA processes and increase the risk of long-term psychological consequences, according to a 2017 report by the University of Gothenburg*. With all this in mind, research shows that the trauma parents—or even grandparents—have endured results in possible physiological changes, which can then be passed down through multiple generations.

Closely interwoven with these genetic predispositions, parents’ nurturing methods are a much more accepted “cause” for inherited trauma. Transmitted through parenting style and learned behaviours, trauma can either directly stem from volatile interactions and relationships between children and parents, or indirectly by being surrounded by people suffering from depression, anxiety, guilt and aggression.

Examples of parent-to-child trauma transmission

Beyond epigenetics and parenting style, any parent who hasn’t addressed and resolved their own trauma is bound to pass it down to their child. These negative emotions surface subconsciously. For example, a mother who was sexually abused in her youth and didn’t seek recovery could be suffering from depression, depressed anger, low self-esteem, excessive vigilance and paranoia. If she has a child, she wouldn’t be able to fully express her love due to these “inner demons” and emotional walls that have been built over years. Then there are those who have suffered physical abuse. Victims of family violence may perceive physical abuse as a disciplinary method because “that’s how they were disciplined”. This can cultivate feelings of anger, aggression and extreme anxiety, and children will find every reason to leave home as early as they can, to as far as they can. An overly controlling parent could also be the result of being neglected as a child, overcompensating from the lack of parental guidance and love growing up. Studies have also shown that people with parents who intruded on their privacy and life choices were more likely to have lower senses of happiness and general well-being, which could lead to lifelong psychological damage*.

Behavioural warning signs to look out for

Different children process and reveal different levels of trauma, which can be expressed in various ways. Parents who are aware of existing trauma within the family should remain vigilant and keep a look out for any intense reactions or risk factors, which could be one or more of the symptoms below:

  • Preschoolers—thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinginess, insomnia, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behaviour, and withdrawal from constant parental interaction.

  • Elementary school children—irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends.

  • Adolescents—sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behaviour, and poor concentration.

How to break the cycle

  • The first step to preventing or curing any potentially inherited trauma is by healing the source first—this could be yourself, your spouse, or your parents or parents-in-law. Gather the strength and courage to seek therapeutic help and support to face these deep-seated issues head on, talk things out and let time and therapy slowly heal your emotional and psychological wounds.

  • Identify potential triggers and corresponding emotional responses—in both yourselves and your children. This way, you can then develop suitable strategies to manage and treat those reactions. This can be done on various levels, like by monitoring your child in high pressure situations and recognising signs of distress and his or her natural responses.

  • Discuss the trauma you’ve felt with your children—open up to them about your trauma, or any transgenerational trauma that has run in the family. By sharing your negative experiences, children will be better equipped to see the bigger picture should you act out in the future, and it prevents them from being unwitting recipients of painful feelings that may be inflicted onto them, because they know where your actions and reactions stem from. This could also help children who are starting to worry about signs of their own trauma, as they’ll realise that it is not entirely their fault or their weakness, but part of a bigger issue that he or she could play a part in healing and resolving as a whole.

  • Recognise teachable moments in daily challenges—don’t harp on mistakes or wrongdoings. Instead, turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones by teaching them the better way of handling the situation at hand, and brainstorm ideas to solve problems together. Humility over humiliation makes way for growth and reflection.

But above it all, a good parent is a good communicator, and an even better listener. Always be open to hearing what your child has to say, be it through words or actions, and always take a proactive role in offering support, reassurance and love, unconditionally.