The Genetic Factor and Generational Trauma

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Ever come across this phrase before? When I hear it these days, I associate it with yet another -ism, like racism or sexism… on the tip of my tongue, but not quite sure what it is yet…geneticism? …Holy cr*p!! I thought I just made that term up, but thanks to modern technology, one click on Google and here ya go…of course someone’s already thought of this. Ok Francis Galton, watch out!

I try not to generalize too much, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of parents out there really do want what’s best for their children. That being said, I think it’s also safe to assume that there’s an enormous amount of room to get things wrong or make mistakes. How many times have you heard a parent make the disclaimer that babies don’t come with instruction manuals? True, right? At the same time I have a bit of an issue with turning to genetics to find the root cause of problems. I’ve been thinking a lot about generational trauma lately. Knowing what we know about trauma for any individual and the physiological havoc it can wreak on one’s body and mind, how can we avoid the possibility that offspring of those suffering from unresolved trauma might also be affected? I don’t think it’s too much a stretch of the imagination to consider how someone consumed with hypervigilance and a heightened startle reflex might interact differently with their children. And while the personal issues that parents struggle with likely won’t interfere with their capacity to love,  they can on the other hand set up some interesting dynamics.

I’m willing to acknowledge, as fairly recent studies have revealed, that trauma can play a role in genetic outcomes such as premature death and certain illnesses, for generations down the road. But to assign someone’s personal makeup to a fate determined by the experiences of one’s parents…that just seems a bit cruel in some ways, doesn’t it? (If you happen to be one of those people who is ok with this idea because you’ve got it good, then congratulations I’m very happy for you. Now please step aside while I speak to everyone else 🙂 ) I want you to consider slavery for example…yeah, I get that relatively speaking there were maybe a handful of slaves who were treated well and may have had a fairly smooth transition after Lincoln ordered the Emancipation Proclamation, but what about the millions who were subject to inhumane treatment throughout their lifetime? Although PTSD wasn’t an official diagnosis until 1980, it doesn’t change the fact that people have been suffering from this condition since the beginning of time. Consider war, sexual assault, physical abuse, neglect, car accidents…oh yeah, and that other big one that’s been so easy to dismiss: the near obliteration of native americans. The concept of generational trauma isn’t new, but I do think it’s something that we need to start paying more attention to, for society as a whole.

One of my favorite studies regarding the subject of genetics is this one that I heard on NPR  a while back,  where the children of depressed mothers were assessed for depression and yes, of course there was direct correlation. But the twist is that when the mothers were treated and their depression improved, the children got better too, without any treatment at all. So there you go. Genetics factor challenged and disproved. Well, sort of. From what research currently tells us, genetics can set us up for a small increased risk that a condition may manifest but it takes much more than this to tip fate in that direction; environmental factors also play a significant role.

So, instead of wrapping children neatly up and assigning them to the eternal life sentence of being “just like their parents,” maybe we can take a little more initiative to help break the cycle. Perhaps this starts with you and a commitment to get therapy to change the pattern within your own family. Or maybe this is about checking in with your stereotypes about others which might influence your opinion of who deserves what. Or maybe it’s about healthy role modeling for those around you. I know I’m probably a bit of an optimist when it comes to these things, but I do believe there’s always room for healing and positive change – there’s always another way.

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Copyright 2017 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.