Early childhood adverse experiences can lead some individuals to suffer substantial developmental disruptions. With such pervasive problems and such dysfunctional parents, we could be tempted to attribute their problems to bad genes. Finding a genetic link seemed particularly relevant for schizophrenia which clearly runs in families. Yet after over thirty years and millions of pounds’ and dollars’ worth of research, no consistent genetic patterns have been found for schizophrenia, or for any other psychiatric illness.
Recent research has swept away the idea that having a particular gene produces a particular result. It turns out that many genes work together to influence a single outcome. Even more important, genes are not fixed: life events can trigger biochemical messages that turn them on or off (by a process called methylation), making them sensitive to messages from the body. While life events can change the behaviour of the gene, they do not alter its fundamental structure. Methylation patterns, however, can be passed on to children, a phenomenon known as epigenetics. Stressful experiences affect gene expression in humans. Family tragedies can send shock waves from one generation to the next and it can be important to explore at least three generations of family history to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma that repeat.
The history you share with your family begins before you’re conceived. When your grandmother was five months pregnant with your mother, the precursor cell of the egg you developed from was already present in your mother’s ovaries. This means that before your mother was even born, your mother, your grandmother, and the earliest traces of you were all in the same body. Your inception can be similarly traced in your paternal line. The precursor cells of the sperm you developed from were present in your father when he was a foetus in his mother’s womb. The biological residue of traumas your grandmother experienced can be passed down to you. There is, however, a significant biological difference in the evolution of the egg and sperm. Your father’s sperm continued to multiply when he reached puberty, whereas your mother was born with her lifetime supply of eggs. So, years later, one of those eggs, fertilised by your father’s sperm, eventually developed into who you are today.
Both precursor egg and sperm cells can be imprinted by events with the potential to affect subsequent generations. Because your father’s sperm continues to develop throughout adolescence and adulthood, his sperm continues to be susceptible to traumatic imprints almost up until the point when you are conceived. Our DNA can be affected by both negative and positive thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. We receive aspects of our grandmother’s mothering through our own mother. The traumas our grandmother endured her pains and sorrows, her difficulties in her childhood or with our grandfather, the losses of those she loved who died early, these filter, to some degree, into the mothering she gave to our mother. If we look back another generation, the same would be true about the mothering our grandmother received. The details of the events that shaped their lives may be obscured from us, but nevertheless, the impact can be deeply felt. It’s not only what we inherit from our parents but also how they were parented that influences how we relate to a partner, how we relate to ourselves, and how we nurture our children. For better or worse, parents tend to pass on the parenting that they themselves received.
When members of our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered from immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression can be found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain. Events such as the death of a parent or infant, a child given away, the loss of a home, or even the withdrawal of a mother’s attention can all have the effect of collapsing the walls of support and restricting the flow of love in a family. Discovering the origin of these traumas, long-standing family patterns can finally be laid to rest. Broken relationships often stem from painful events in our family history and can repeat for generations until we summon the courage to let go of our judgments, open our hearts, and view our parents and other family members with compassion.
Safe and protective early relationships are critical to protecting children from long-term problems. In addition, even parents with their own genetic vulnerabilities can pass on that shield to the next generation if they are given the right support. Recognising the profound effects of trauma and deprivation on child development need not lead to blaming parents. Parents do the best they can, but all parents need help to nurture their children. As a therapist treating people with a legacy of trauma, my primary concern is not to determine exactly what happened to them but to help them tolerate the sensations, emotions, and reactions they experience without being constantly hijacked by them. When the subject of blame arises, the central issue that needs to be addressed is usually self-blame, accepting that the trauma was not their fault and that no one could deserve what happened to them.
I offer a free initial telephone conversation, giving you as much time and space as you need to consider whether you’d like to come and meet me.