Society of Bioethics and Medicine
Intergenerational Trauma - Psychosocial and Epigenetic Mechanisms of Risk
Written by: Selma Music
Edited by: Anling Chen
Intergenerational trauma is the effect that profound traumatic experiences have on future generations. Studied mostly through the lens of post-war refugees, the scope has recently been narrowed to focus on mothers that experienced abuse or trauma and their children.
Anxiety is a major product in children of mothers with traumatic history, but surprisingly is sparsely covered in intergenerational trauma studies. The abuse mothers experienced and the effects on their children have been studied by Cassandra L. Hendrix, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Langone, and her team. Dr. Hendrix studied the potential effect that parenting practices and maternal depression have on the lives and wellbeing of these children. Parenting practices are considered to be a “primary pathway” to a child’s mental health outcome and emotional development, making them a focus of this study.
Dr. Hendrix’s team hypothesized that children of mothers who were exposed to trauma would have higher rates of anxiety compared to those who were not exposed to trauma. Additionally, they hypothesized that parenting quality and maternal depression would strongly impact the relationship between maternal trauma and child anxiety. The results of their study showed strong linkage between maternal depression caused by trauma and offspring anxiety, and that trauma is associated with offspring anxiety.
These findings also imply that mothers who did not develop depression as a result of their trauma may not have seen similar negative impacts on their child’s development. These kinds of results are significant for clinical intervention and prevention. By identifying maternal depression among mothers, child anxiety symptoms can be mediated and prevented. Concerning the parenting perspective, providing mothers with trauma-focused parental training and classes for positive parenting can be a preventative measure. Informing mothers of the possible intergenerational risks to their children they can have during treatment for trauma-related problems and during prenatal care visits can also help with prevention. Additionally, identifying children with anxiety symptoms, whether it be in daycare, preschool, or grade school, can start intervention earlier and help improve mental health and behavior.
The effects of trauma can impact depressive rates and parenting as seen in Dr. Hendrix’s study, but our experiences can also have consequences that reverberate to future generations through the epigenome which has been studied by Michael Skinner, a biologist at Washington State University at Pullman. The epigenome is a “swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed, [and] can be passed down through multiple generations.” The trauma that people experience can possibly trigger epigenetic changes in humans and end up being passed down to future offspring. However, these alterations can be viewed as biomarkers that can identify individuals at greater risk for mental illness or other health problems. These biomarkers are targets for early intervention that may reverse the legacy of intergenerational trauma.
Having a greater abundance of research on childhood anxiety and other mental illnesses is crucial to the developmental function of children. Diagnosing symptoms early on can prevent the long-term effects that anxiety has on mental health in children. Intergenerational trauma is well documented, but its mechanisms of transmission are still unclear. Proving that trauma can cause inheritable changes is difficult as there’s many arguments that the effects were passed through parenting rather than genes. Studies like Dr. Hendrix’s and Michael Skinner’s can provide more knowledge on what can cause anxiety, mental illnesses, and other disorders in children, possible preventative measures, and certain risk factors, especially genetic ones.
Parents' emotional trauma may change their children's biology. studies in mice show how. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2022, from https://www.science.org/content/article/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how
Robinson, B. A., Hendrix, C. L., Sloan Krakovsky, H., Smith, A. K., & Brennan, P. A. (2018). Maternal trauma exposure and childhood anxiety outcomes: Examining psychosocial mechanisms of risk.Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology,47(4), 645–657.https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802- 018-0463-1
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