Can you have symptoms of trauma without experiencing trauma?

Shadows of parents holding child's handMany might assume that intergenerational transmission trauma from parent to child occurs by abuse or negligence, But it’s not always the case.

Trauma can also be transmitted through changes in gene expression. This is known as the epigenetics transmission of trauma. Epigenetics is understood as changes in the function of genes that are hereditary and not associated with changes in its DNA sequence (Dupont, Armant and Brenner, 2009). It is believed that epigenetic changes may occur as a result of stress, as in the case of parents with a history of trauma.

Heritability of trauma

Research with children of Holocaust survivors has indicated that children can inherit trauma memories from their parents. The evidence is so compelling that some have argued that children can inherit the unconscious from their parents. Some children of Holocaust survivors are even known for their genocide-themed nightmares. While it can be said that children receive images of the Holocaust through shared stories and stories, this does not explain their increased vulnerability to stress-related diagnoses such as complex trauma (C-PTSD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While it may be more difficult to prove the inheritance of traumatic memories, we know that psychological stress can affect patterns of gene expression through the nervous system.

While it may be more difficult to prove the inheritance of traumatic memories, we know that psychological stress can affect patterns of gene expression through the nervous system. The willingness to develop PTSD and C-PTSD may be transmitted epigenetically (Kellermann, 2013).

When symptoms occur with no history of trauma

It is important to understand that trauma can be inherited regardless of difficult family circumstances. A child can develop anxiety, depressionor other stress-related issues like PTSD due to hereditary vulnerability rather than direct trauma.

Research has shown that mother and child are safe attachment is key to childhood development (Meins, Bureau & Fernyhough, 2018). A recent study shows that “good enough” parenting is enough for a child to develop a secure attachment to his mother. This means that perfect parenting is not required for the child to grow securely attached, a condition that is associated with the best mental health outcomes (Lehigh University, 2019).

The research has two components. On the one hand, research shows us that we don’t need perfect parenting and a stress-free environment to be safe and healthy. The flip side of this research is that some children will inherit trauma even with a soft education. In these cases, a child can inherit the symptoms of trauma, including nightmares and anxiety, even without being exposed to trauma.

Can epigenetic changes lead to positive results?

Although the news that trauma can be passed on despite good parenting may seem daunting, epigenetics also creates positive changes. When we have good nutrition and are raised in a stimulating and loving environment, over the generations, epigenetic changes can also occur for the better. Researchers studying epigenetics in animal models have found that pups whose mothers lick and groom them are more likely to grow up to be calm, while puppies that are not often cared for by their mothers can become anxious ( Kirkpatrick, 2017).

What we do know from epigenetic research regarding intergenerational transmission of trauma is that we can at least have some influence on our children’s ability to be calm and resilient to stress. By offering them a loving and stimulating environment, we can reduce the intensity of hereditary trauma. Each succeeding generation can reduce the effects of trauma through constant education and love parenthood. The trauma should not continue from generation to generation.

The references:

  1. Dupont, C., Armant, D. R., & Brenner, C. A. (2009). Epigenetics: definition, mechanisms and clinical perspective. Seminars in reproductive medicine, 27(5), 351 to 357. doi: 10.1055 / s-0029-1237423
  2. Kellermann, N. P. (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: can nightmares be inherited ?. The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 50(1), 33 to 39. Retrieved from
  3. Kirkpatrick, B. (December 12, 2017). Cuddling can leave positive epigenetic traces on your baby’s DNA. Retrieved from
  4. Lehigh University. (2019, May 8). “Fairly good” parenting is good enough, according to a study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from
  5. Meins, E., Bureau, J.F., and Fernyhough, C. (2018). Mother-child attachment from early childhood to preschool years: predicting safety and stability. Child development, 89(3), 1022 to 1038. doi: 10.1111 / cdev.12778

© Copyright 2019 All rights reserved. Authorization to publish granted by Fabiana Franco, PhD, therapist in New York, New York

The previous article was written only by the author named above. The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns regarding the previous article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.


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