Family burdened with inherited trauma stress

Addiction, compulsion, disordered eating and mental illness typically show up in people from families that have experienced significant losses from which they have never fully recovered.

Sadly, too many families have experienced these losses from violence — war, suicide or crime. Financial tragedies including dispossession, or more commonly, as a side effect of intolerance, over-control, or neglect can also trigger a sense of loss. Whatever the source, developmental trauma, which can be defined as “interruptions in one’s sense of safety,” occurs at both the systemic and individual levels. When these safety interruptions occur and are overlooked, tolerated or perpetuated by caregivers, the roots of developmental trauma are planted and will exert their influence throughout members’ lifespans. They will determine essential aspects of the system’s functioning, and, in an insidious fashion, be passed on to the next generation.

Families burdened by these legacies of loss find themselves caught in repetitive cycles of illness and relapse, reinforced by learned responses that are transmitted across generations. Disorder.

This vignette describes a family burdened with inherited trauma stress

The Johnsons have been married 22 years and have three children.

Jeremy, 20 is beginning his junior year at college, away from home for the first time having earned an AA degree at a local community college. Jessica, just 18, should be a senior in high school this year but she missed her second semester of junior year because she went to residential treatment for anorexia. Julia, the baby, turned 14 over the summer and has earned sufficient high school credit to be a sophomore having taken AP classes at community college each of the past two summers (including the summer before her freshman year of high school). Julia spends all her free time with her horse, Rocky, whom she’s begun to jump and show. When home she’s buried in a book. Mom recently lost her mother for whom she provided in-home care for the past three years, the final year in hospice (Alzheimer’s and heart disease). Dad is an international finance VP, and travels more than 100 days per year, mostly to the Far East. Dad’s father was killed in Vietnam where Dad was born; he is bi-racial Vietnamese/American though prides himself on “looking 100% American.” He has no contact with his birth mother. Was raised by his father’s parents in Sacramento, CA. Jeremy finished his senior year of high school in independent study having been asked to leave mainstream school for marijuana possession (with accusations of dealing) and defiance of authority. He has had school trouble since tenth grade. Middle daughter, Jessica, always an honor student, “basically stopped eating,” according to Mom, “around the time her grandmother entered hospice.” Today, Jeremy continues to use some marijuana and Jessica has episodes of food restriction. In contrast, Julia had her picture on the cover of the local weekly soaring a jump on Rocky. Today Dad’s off to Taiwan for four weeks (“a long one this time”) and Mom is thinking about getting a volunteer job and finding Julia a second horse.

Returning to Health — Systemic Family Therapy

Systemic Family Therapy begins with an effort to engage the family members who are willing to attend to describe “the deal” they are in with each other and the role they see themselves occupying. Each member is invited to speak to how they each participate in the deal. It’s helpful to keep the following questions in mind:

  • What is the nature of our family deal: How do we constellate? How do members cope? What behaviors are we reinforcing for each other? What behaviors do we discourage (consciously or unconsciously)?
  • How do I tend to participate in the deal?
  • What are the effects of how I participate; on me? on the system? on the loved one(s) I perceive to be unhappy, in trouble, sick or struggling?
  • What forces in me from my family of origin inform, or drive, how I’ve learned to participate in this way?

As this initial exploration deepens next steps include taking an inventory of each member’s:

  • Feelings and emotions
  • Beliefs and “rules”
  • Behaviors in which they engage to try and make things different or to fix
  • Metaphors that describe the roles members are pulled to play or caught in

This article was originally posted Kenneth Perlmutter, PhD, Clinical Director at Mind Therapy Clinic. Find more information on Multi-Family Support Group Therapy and Kenneth Perlmutter, PhD. on Mind Therapy Blog.