Gayle Williamson: We can inherit our parents' trauma
You don't have to have been in a war to suffer PTSD, says psychotherapist Gayle Williamson – it can happen in your own family
Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30
When Edward Byrne, a member of the 19th Royal Hussars, returned from the front in 1919 after the First World War, his nightmares were so violent they would wake up his family and neighbours on Rialto Street in Dublin.
After his time in the trenches, during which he fought at the Battle of the Somme and saw many of his comrades die, he showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); but as Gay Byrne recalled last week in his moving account of his dad's experience in the TV documentary My Father's War, he never talked about it. Indeed, it became the war no one talked about.
Similarly, US-born psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes poignantly in The Examined Life of taking his 80-year-old father Bernard back to Hungary to revisit the places of his childhood, a world he had left in 1940 at age 19, dislocated by the Second World War. Despite previously having given vivid descriptions, when they revisited the homes where his father had lived – which perfectly matched his descriptions – Bernard claimed they were not the right ones. He refused to remember. An explanation was to be found in the fact that almost everyone Grosz's father knew at that time had been sent to the Nazi gas chambers; his not remembering was "out of the impulse to keep such horror from his children''.
It is likely that both Edward and Bernard knew intuitively what has long been documented in studies: parents can pass on their trauma to their children.
Many survivors of trauma keep quiet, lock the horror away. Except, of course, it's never completely buried. It shows up in emotional numbness, addictions, obsessions or psychosomatic illness, among other difficulties – all of which inevitably impact in some way on sufferers' children. I don't know if Gay Byrne and Stephen Grosz were affected by their fathers' trauma; but typically, if the parent doesn't talk about what happened, the child is forced to come up with their own story to explain the parent's symptoms that could be worse than the actual trauma, experiencing related thoughts and feelings. They could even blame themselves.
Alternatively, out of a wish to protect and prepare a child to cope in what they see as a dangerous world, the parent may overdisclose about their trauma and overtly transmit their anxieties with messages such as 'you can't trust anyone' or 'people are evil'. Their children then don't develop a reasonable sense of security and predictability in the world.
Much of the research in the area of intergenerational transmission of trauma – which can even be passed on through genes – has focused on Holocaust survivors and their children. However, the phenomenon isn't confined to mass traumas like the Holocaust. I would suggest, as others have done, that it's common.
The sudden death at 25 of Peaches Geldof on April 7 was nothing less than tragic – not just because the former wild child seemed to have found her place in life, happily married with two young sons, one not yet a year old and the other almost two, but because of the number of family dramas that preceded it. It isn't yet known what caused Peaches's death, but it's notable that her childhood trauma has been repeated with her sons – just as she was left motherless at a young age, so have her sons. Her father, Bob Geldof, lost his mother, too, to a brain haemorrhage when he was just seven.
Peaches was seven when her parents divorced acrimoniously after Paula Yates's affair with INXS frontman Michael Hutchence. She was 11 when Yates was found dead from a heroin overdose in 2000. And prior to this, Yates had attempted suicide in the wake of Hutchence killing himself in 1997, prompting Geldof to fight for custody of their daughters, which he won in June 1998. It was undoubtedly a traumatic childhood, as Peaches herself described it in her last interview.
"Now that I am a mum, I can correct those awful parts of my childhood," she said. "Before, I was just not at peace with myself about it because I was just traumatised."
Your trauma (ie, any shocking or overwhelming experience where you felt powerless to cope) may have been of the kind more readily recognised as traumatic – for example, a car accident, rape, childhood sexual abuse, war, kidnapping, a burglary.
However, there are other traumas, more psychological than physical, but just as devastating. Experiences of relationship violations in childhood, such as neglect, betrayal, being ignored, repeatedly criticised or humiliated. These so-called 'small-t' traumas (as opposed to the 'Big T' traumas like war) are likely to be affecting your life more than you know. The fragile little girl who is shrugged off by her angry father when looking for a hug, or faces an explosion of rage and criticism if she ever makes a mistake; the little boy who lives with the constant threat of violence breaking out between his alcoholic parents, forcing him to always be on guard, anxious.
What makes events like these traumatic is that they are inflicted by parents – the very people a vulnerable, helpless child relies on to look after them, but who instead become a source of fear and anxiety. Instead of caregivers being consistent, reliable, loving, sensitively attuned and accepting, they are emotionally absent, overly intrusive, neglectful, violent, rejecting or inconsistent.
Those who have suffered developmental trauma may in their everyday lives as adults feel frightened, anxious, alone and trapped but not be able to make sense of what they're feeling. They know something bad happened to them but they're often not sure how valid their pain is, whether they can call it abuse or not. And I'm not sure they get much help from the psychiatric sector in understanding their symptoms – because it's to psychiatrists they will likely be referred by their GP.
As a psychotherapist, I'm not a doctor and so don't follow a medical model of diagnosis like a psychiatrist does. However, the diagnostic bible for psychiatrists, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was only recently updated (the DSM V), still has, in my opinion, disappointingly little to say on relational or developmental trauma. And despite a respected group of child psychiatrists and psychologists lobbying for several years to include a Developmental Trauma Disorder in the updated DSM, this was not done.
Because the consequences of childhood traumatisation are still not officially recognised, the risk is that patients won't get the kind of treatment they actually need. As trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk notes, there is a whole array of other disorders a child is more likely to be diagnosed with – separation anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); or in adulthood, borderline personality disorder or eating disorders, etc.
So how might you consider if you have PTSD? There are a long list of possible symptoms. In addition to those already mentioned – such as emotional numbness, extreme anxiety and feeling fearful, frequently for no apparent reason – PTSD is often marked by flashbacks or distressing, repeated memories of the traumas; intense stress reactions or phobic avoidance of reminders of the trauma; or alternatively detaching from the experience and keeping it out of the story of your life.
"Staying alert and ready to react in fight-flight mode to the next assault or betrayal takes precedence over sorting out our emotions and thoughts, taking care of our body's health, considering our core values and who we aspire to be," says US professor of psychiatry Julian Ford.
But suffering trauma in childhood doesn't automatically mean you will develop PTSD. As Canadian psychotherapist Patricia De Young says, as long as parents notice the damage they have done, take responsibility for making necessary changes, explain their actions and help children talk about their own feelings, post-traumatic stress can be avoided. It's when the people the child depends on don't help them deal with the traumatic situation that problems arise.
One can only hope that Peaches Geldof's two little boys, mercifully still too young to feel the extent of the trauma that has hit them, will be able somehow to avoid inheriting a terrible legacy of sorrow.
In order to begin healing, people need to hear that their ongoing pain from childhood relationship violations does count as trauma; it's not imagined, exaggerated or self-inflicted. Then they can start to get help – and hopefully avoid passing on their trauma to the next generation, too.
Gayle Williamson is an IACP-accredited psychotherapist in Dublin; www.ferneytherapy.ie