Trauma experienced in one generation of a family can affect generations to come. This occurs when there has been physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children, neglect of children and domestic violence. In some instances, the effects of other types of trauma such as catastrophes, war, illness, incarceration, addiction, accidents and violence also traumatize other generations.
Parental Physical Abuse
Adults who were physically abused as children can develop into parents who physically abuse their own children. Childhood physical abuse is most often perpetrated under the guise of providing discipline for the children who are abused. Consequently, children who experience physical abuse can come to believe that abusive tactics are appropriate ways to teach and discipline children. Additionally, adults who were physically abused as children may form adult relationships in which there is domestic violence. Such children have learned that family relationships and ‘love’ can be intertwined with physical abuse.
Emotional abuse takes many forms including the use of verbal aggression and other tactics of domination, power and control over others. Emotional abuse is ‘hands off’ abuse done with the intent to manipulate and punish others. While emotional abuse itself does not involve physical violence, it can nevertheless be debilitating for the victim and have long-lasting effects on self-image and self-esteem. One of the primary effects of having been emotionally abused is relational problems both with significant others and in less intimate relationships. Adults who were emotionally abused as children may enter relationships in which they are treated similarly by significant others or in which they emotionally abuse others. Anger management problems are common in victims of emotional abuse as is depression, anxiety and substance use.
Parental Sexual Abuse
Parents who were themselves sexually abused as children can develop many parenting problems which can severely and adversely affect their own children. The inappropriate sexualization of children may continue across generations unintentionally or, at times, purposefully. Sexually abused parents may not understand appropriate boundaries between adults and children and may expose their children to age-inappropriate sexual information. On the other hand, some sexually abused parents will overcompensate, attempting to protect their children in ways that are distressful for the children. Tragically, some adults who were sexually abused as children will go on to sexually abuse children themselves. This is rarer, but it is typically a direct result of having learned as children that children and adults may engage in sexual activity together.
Children who are emotionally or physically neglected as children can develop many long-lasting problems. Intimacy and nurturance skills are typically underdeveloped and can lead these children to have relational problems later in life with other adults and their own children. Some children who experience neglect will form quick, over-involved and inappropriate attachments with others. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse. Others, finding it difficult to tolerate intimacy, may remain socially and emotionally distant even when involved in what are typically considered to be intimate relationships. Emotionally distant parents, debilitated by their own childhood neglect, can fail to meet the nurturance needs of their own children.
Children who witness domestic violence are at risk for entering adult relationships in which there is intimate partner violence. These children learn that violence, control and domination are essential elements of an intimate relationship. Child witnesses also learn rigid gender roles that tend to perpetuate the domestic violence cycle. For example, girls who witness the victimization of their mothers may expect abusive behavior from their own partners. Similarly, boys who witness the victimization of women may repeat this in their own adult relationships.
When adults are traumatized by any life event their children are affected. Emotionally and psychologically devastating events can induce Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health concerns that impair their ability to parent effectively. Appropriate parent/child roles and boundaries may be compromised during the time that parents are recovering. These types of early role and boundary distortions can interfere with the appropriate development of children. Some, for example, become ‘parentified’ and attempt to care for their debilitated parents. The ‘parentification’ of children predisposes them to codependency and they may form other relationships in which their own needs are not met.
Children can develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when they are exposed to adults who themselves have the disorder. Some individuals with this condition have severe and frightening symptoms such as dissociation, flashbacks and bouts of extreme emotionality. Children who witness severe trauma symptoms such as these may be physically endangered or experience severe and overwhelming psychological distress themselves. This type of trauma is known as ‘secondary’ because the affected child has not directly experienced the original trauma but is, nonetheless, acutely affected by it.
Children of addicts and alcoholics are at risk for substance use and substance disorders themselves. They learn about substance use by watching their parent’s use. Children of addicted parents are prone to think of substance use as a coping strategy for distress. Additionally, these children do not learn healthy ways to problem-solve, manage emotions or manage relationships.
Addicted families have communication patterns and interactions that accommodate the effects of substance disorders. Boundaries and roles are confused as family members attempt to cope with the impairments of the addicted parent(s). Children may be overly responsible and assume adult roles. They may also be unprotected and at risk for harm due to a lack of appropriate adult supervision.
Adult children of addicts and alcoholics have difficulty in healthy relationships where intimacy and openness are valued. Although often painfully desirous of these types of relationships, such adults may find themselves without the emotional and relationship skills necessary for having them. Having lived in a dysfunctional family of origin such children are at risk for having other relationships with individuals who are impaired in some way. They tend to form relationships of codependency in which their own needs are overshadowed by another’s. Even without substance use in the families they create, the communication patterns, boundary confusion, role confusion and intimacy problems of addicted families can be perpetuated.