• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 03rd December, 2007

Passing down trauma from generation to generation

Does trauma linger in families? Are the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors likely to have been scarred by stressful family environments, guilt, and poor parenting? Or will they have learned resilience from their parents and grandparents? The research on these matters is not clear. Some studies suggest that the offspring of Holocaust survivors are more prone to psychological problems; others show that the second and third generations are about as well adjusted as anyone else.In many cases, there is a clear possibility that the researchers who conduct the studies and the individuals who participate in them will have allowed their assumptions to color the findings. Researchers may assume that the offspring of survivors cannot fare as well as those who have escaped contact with such terrible events. So they may pose questions, choose subjects or interpret findings in such a way as to confirm those preconceptions. To circumvent such problems, Miri Scharf of the University of Haifa in Israel used data that did not have its origins in any study of the long-term effects of trauma. Rather, it had been collected during research into the functioning of a group of adolescent boys and their parents during the teenagers’ transition from living at home to entering mandatory service in the Israeli army. As part of this study, mothers and fathers provided demographic information, which included declarations as to whether either of their own parents was a Holocaust survivor. To examine any lingering effects of trauma, Scharf compared the 88 families in the study with Holocaust backgrounds to other unaffected families.She found that adolescents in families where both parents were the offspring of Holocaust survivors were different from their peers. They perceived their parents to be less accepting and less supportive of their independence, and they reported having less positive self-perceptions than their counterparts. Additionally, according to their peers in the army, this group demonstrated poorer adjustment during basic training than fellow recruits who had only one parent with a Holocaust background. Indeed, parents and adolescents in families where only the mother or the father had a Holocaust background did not appear to be as affected by the Holocaust legacy. Miri Scharf is reported as telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz online "When only one parent is a survivor, the kids do fine. The problems begin when their homes have too many dark shadows in them." Herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she says she became aware of the effects of living with "third-generation emotional baggage" when she was working with students whose grandparents were survivors. "Some of them spoke of having a hard time trusting, of their fear of getting screwed over. This comes from a terrible air of suspiciousness at home." Scharf’s analysis suggests that trauma does indeed linger in families across generations. With these insights in mind, when considering how to help other children in trouble, it might be important to investigate not only their own experiences, but also that of their parents and grandparents. • Summary of “Long-term effects of trauma: Psychosocial functioning of the second and third generation of Holocaust survivors” by Miri Scharf in Development and Psychopathology, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp603-622, 2007.

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