By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper
How Trauma Changes Parenting
When we say someone has experienced trauma, or that they have been traumatised, what we are really saying is that they’ve experienced an event or series of events so stressful that it’s impacting their mental wellbeing as well as their ability to function normally in their day-to-day lives .
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is well-known as a form of mental illness caused by experiencing an extremely stressful event, such as being a survivor of war . However, living through war is not the only cause of PTSD; PTSD can also present itself in people who have experienced other traumatic events such as childhood trauma, sexual assault or abuse, natural disasters, or poverty [1,2].
Traumatic experiences can be lifechanging for the person who has directly experienced the event. This trauma also has the possibility to affect the people around survivors, such as family members. This phenomenon is called inter-generational trauma [3,4].
What is Inter-generational Trauma?
PTSD can greatly change a person’s behavior, such as their ability to process and regulate their emotions, communicate their feelings, moods, or reactions, and form meaningful connections with others . The transfer of these behaviors to others, such as children or other family members, is inter-generational trauma, also referred to as generational trauma or transgenerational trauma [3-5].
One of the ways trauma is passed through generations is by changes in parenting style.
Effects of Inter-generational Trauma on Parenting Styles
Survivors of traumatic events often have one of four adaptation styles that impact their parenting [3,5,6]:
- Numb: Adopting the numb adaptation style causes people to self-isolate and have a low tolerance for attention or stimulation. They also do not take a meaningful role in raising their children
- Victim: Those with the victim adaptation style frequently struggle with depression and show fear and distrust towards others
- Fighters: Fighters tend to be intolerant of weakness, do not accept pity, and are focused on succeeding in their endeavors no matter the cost
- Those Who Made It: People with the Those Who Made It adaptation style pursue being in a higher socio-economic class. They also tend to distance themselves from the trauma they experienced.
These distinct behaviors and coping styles have various effects on parenting styles.
Reduced Effective Communication.
Parents may choose to enforce silence about the traumatic event they experienced and refuse to acknowledge or speak about it [4,6]. Alternatively, they may choose to play down the importance of the event, and instead, express hope that it’s not something that will ever happen again [4,6]. This lack of effective acknowledgement and communication can result in children having poor communication styles as they age.
Parents themselves may have poor emotion regulation and abilities to form bonds with others, which can extend to poor bonding with their own children. Not having healthy emotional attachments with children often results in unhealthy attachment styles in their children, such as avoidant or anxious attachments, which have lifelong impacts on child development [7,8] and lifelong impacts on their ability to form bonds with others in the future [7,8].
Increased Parental Stress.
Research shows that parents who have experienced significant traumatic events have higher levels of both general and parental stress compared to average ratings . This can result in an impatient temperament and lack of emotional control that can both cause an unhealthy home environment and be indirectly taught to children.
An important indirect effect to acknowledge is that people with PTSD experience higher than average levels of poverty . This can directly result in parents having a higher work burden and thus having compromised parenting and less time to attend to their child’s development , corresponding with issues with bonding and attachment.
Impact of Inter-generational Trauma on Child Development
Research from developmental psychology has shown that there are three primary parenting styles that influence child development: authoritative (warm and democratic), authoritarian (restrictive and hostile), and permissive (few enforced rules or restrictions) [10,11]. A meta-analysis from 2015 showed that parents with an authoritative parenting style, which many parents with PTSD adopt, negatively influence children’s stress resilience skills such as goal planning, emotional control, positive thinking, overall family support, and willingness to seek help with issues . An additional analysis showed that children of parents with PTSD have higher levels of various mental illnesses .
These findings illustrate that inter-generational trauma can result in a lack of positive trait development in children. This is critical because this lack of trait development can further negatively impact future generations in a cyclical nature.
Given the impact that trauma can have on parents, and that these behavioral and psychological issues can be transmitted to children through inter-generational trauma, it’s important that parents seek out tools for managing trauma to improve their mental health outcomes, thus improving behavioral traits and healthy development in themselves and their children. Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy in combination with mindfulness practices [13-15] can be especially beneficial for this.