Here is a painting by Pablo Picasso (1937), titled Guernica which depicts the trauma of war. This is the introduction to our discussion on the intergenerational effects of war.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
The idea that trauma is transmitted through the generations first gained traction through research on the survivors of the Holocaust. Numerous studies have found that the harrowing effects of war can have effects on the children of survivors, even 2 generations on.
The population in Singapore also experienced the harrowing effects of war during World War II. While much have been said about the physical effects of the war, less have been discussed about the emotional implications of the traumatic experience. Looking at the timeline of events, many adults in Singapore are the 3rd generation of the survivors of the war.
Effects on the self
Published in the Journal of Psychological Trauma, Giladi and Bell (2013) found that 2nd and 3rd generations of Holocaust survivors have a lower differentiation of self. Differentiation of self refers to the ability to separate one’s feelings from thoughts. In other words, it is the ability to acknowledge one’s intense feelings like anger or jealousy without projecting it onto others, or allowing their feelings to overtake their problem solving or decision-making skills.
Differentiation of self also refers to the ability of maintain one’s feelings and thoughts in the presence of close or intimate relationships. It is the ability to maintain one’s emotional boundaries without being enmeshed or consumed by their partners or family. It is the ability to be close to another person while remaining independent.
Effects on communication within the family
3rd generation survivors also expressed poorer levels of communication within the family (Giladi and Bell, 2013). As reported in the journal of Canadian Psychology, this is characterised by a difficulty with talking about distressing events within the family. Conversation about problems are met with either obsessive re-telling or an all-consuming silence (Baranowsky, Young, Johnson-Douglas, Williams-Keeler and McCarrey, 1998).
Effects on parenting
In the journal Development and Psychopathology published by the Cambridge University Press, it was found that people who have grandparents who experienced the Holocaust, reported more psychological distress in their relationship with their own parents as compared to people whose grandparents did not have a similar experience. They perceived their parents to be less accepting and less encouraging of their independence. Personally, they perceived themselves less positively, and had higher levels of ambivalent attachment style (Scharf, 2007). This means that they desire love and affection but are fearful about the security of the relationship.
The psychological issues talked about in the studies, such as differentiation of self, dealing with distress and difficulty with having conversations about distressing events, difficult relationships with one’s parents, and ambivalent attachment styles, are very much relevant to the experiences of the current population. These are also the issues that are often talked about in the therapy room.
With therapy, we can finally have the space to take an honest look at a painful part of our history, notice if we have been unconsciously shaped by those experiences, and hopefully integrate them into our psyche. So that we can finally release ourselves from the shackle-holds of intergenerational trauma.