Trauma Across Generations and Paths to Adaptation and Resilience

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Objective: There is a growing literature on the intergenerational transmission of trauma, representing approaches across psychodynamic, family systems, epidemiological, sociological, and biological levels of analysis. Embitterment has been proposed as a response to severe, but normative, stressful events, different from the life-threatening trauma that precedes posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Method: This article reviews the potential applicability of the construct of embitterment to trauma and intergenerational effects through (a) a historical review of the intergenerational transmission of trauma literature, (b) a discussion of embitterment versus PTSD, (c) a brief review of theories of mechanisms of transmission, and (d) a discussion of biological findings and their interpretation. Results: Mechanisms of intergenerational transmission of trauma, which may include psychodynamic processes, vicarious trauma, learning and modeling, parenting and family environment, and biological influences, are reviewed. Survivor coping and resilience, and specifically the presence of PTSD, has emerged as an important moderator of parental trauma effects on the second generation. A table comparing posttraumatic embitterment disorder and PTSD is provided. Conclusion: The discussion emphasizes the importance of construing biological findings as flexible adaptations to stressors rather than deterministic indicators of damage, the relevance of context in interpreting such findings, and the role of community-level processes for healing.

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