A Legacy of Trauma: How Sexual Abuse Can Impact Future Generations

The #MeToo movement has gone viral following sexual harassment and sexual misconduct allegations against a growing list of celebrities. It’s a powerful and needed movement that’s only beginning to shed light on the depth and scale of the problem. “I’m glad people are coming forward,” says Sherry Young, PhD, CSAT, a senior clinical outreach director for Elements Behavioral Health. “But for each celebrity or public figure charged with sexual misconduct, there are thousands of abusers among regular people whose victims are experiencing similar traumas. There are so many stories that aren’t getting told.”

The Lifelong Impact of Sexual Abuse

Much of the trauma begins in childhood. About 200,000 new cases of child sexual abuse are reported each year. Research shows that one in five girls and one in 20 boys is sexually abused in childhood, but experts agree the rates are likely much higher since most incidences go unreported due to shame and fear. Sexual abuse includes rape, assault and other forms of physical contact, but it can also include child pornography, voyeurism and exposure. The perpetrator is usually someone the child knows well. The following factors increase the likelihood of abuse:

  • Not living at home with both parents
  • Conflict between parents at home, including domestic abuse or divorce
  • Being between 7 and 13 years old

Being victimized once increases the risk that the person will experience additional abuse or trauma in adolescence or adulthood. As Sherry Young knows from firsthand experience, sexual abuse has a lifelong impact. She grew up in an alcoholic home in the 1940s, a time when people didn’t dare talk about addiction. Her father was the vice president of a steel company and was also a binge-drinking alcoholic, who sexually abused her when she was 6 years old. When she confided in her mother about it, her mom justified his behavior, saying he didn’t know what he was doing because he was drunk. “The wounding goes so deep with these things,” says Young. “Even all these years later, after all my training and treatment, I still struggle with intimate relationships.” Indeed, research has established that sexual victimization takes a heavy toll on physical health and sexual relationships and increases the likelihood of developing mental health issues such as substance abuse, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. For Young, one trauma was compounded by another and another. She spent 15 years in a loveless marriage, lost a child to crib death, and supported many close friends as they lost children. And she coped with all of this trauma by denial initially, and then by drinking. Her alcoholism cost her a second marriage of 13 years, among other things. In her 40s, Young started attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings. At 52, she got sober. “That’s when the healing really began,” she says. But sobriety didn’t magically fix the history of trauma that drove it. She had trust and relationship issues, she was controlling and rigid, but she didn’t know why until 10 years into sobriety. “I worked with a sponsor who really got it and helped me deal with the trauma,” she says. After working as a professor for 13 years, she changed directions and became a certified sex addiction therapist. “Helping others who struggle with these issues has helped me fill in all the bits and pieces I couldn’t put together because I had been silenced,” she says. “No one was talking about it. That’s why it’s so important to give permission to people to name the abuse and mistreatment in their families, communities and churches and find help.”

A Nightmare Revisited

Similar to the way we pass genes along to our children and grandchildren, trauma can get passed down to the next generation even if they didn’t directly experience trauma. One of Young’s daughters, now in her 40s, also struggled with alcoholism and got sober at age 25, just eight months after her mother stopped drinking. She was also sexually abused as a child and a few years ago, her daughter’s daughter was molested as well. “Most practitioners working with trauma survivors have witnessed the cycle of violence and abuse repeating itself again and again, from one generation to another,” says Olga Yahontova, MD, a board certified psychiatrist who treats trauma and related issues at Promises Malibu Vista women’s mental health center. “The circumstances differ, the roles change, but the essential pain and disruption repeats itself until trauma is healed and the cycle is broken.” Research shows that moms who report early-life sexual victimization are more likely to have a child who experienced sexual abuse. Although the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, it’s possible that women who are sexually abused parent in a way that makes their children more vulnerable to being sexually victimized. For example, research suggests women who were sexually abused in childhood may be more likely to:

  • Use harsh, physical punishment with their young children or become overly permissive and fail to set limits
  • Dissociate, resulting in inadequate monitoring or inconsistent discipline
  • Have more liberal sexual attitudes and be more approving of sexual activity, but have less communication with their kids about important topics like sex
  • Suffer from early pregnancy, relationship problems, and lower lifelong education and income
  • Struggle with depression, PTSD or substance abuse

All of these factors increase the risk that their child will also suffer victimization. They also put children at greater risk of early sexual activity and delinquency. Another theory behind intergenerational trauma is that mental illness caused by early trauma can be passed from mother to child. In a study of World War II evacuees from Finland, researchers found that the evacuees’ children had the same heightened risk of hospitalization for mood disorders as their mothers. The researchers speculated that the childhood trauma affected their parenting or changed the mothers’ gene function. A similar phenomenon has been observed in Dutch civilians who suffered through severe famine as well as adult children of alcoholics and adult children of Holocaust survivors, who reported high levels of childhood trauma. In these cases, the transmission of trauma likely occurs as a result of their parents’ post-traumatic stress disorder, which includes symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, fearfulness and difficulty with intimacy. The parent may project their fears and issues onto the child, and those become part of the child’s identity. Or, in the case of war veterans, the parent may feel emotionally numb and thus is unable to bond closely with their child. Research also shows that traumatic exposure during pregnancy can harm children. “The generational transmission of trauma is similar to viral transmission where emotional, cognitive and behavioral patterns (primarily unconscious) travel from one host to another, spreading distraction and disease,” says Dr. Yahontova. “In most trauma survivors, this can explain the ongoing self-destruction, addiction problems and destroyed relationships that continue years after the initial impact of trauma, and if not healed, may be passed to next generations who will repeat the cycle. And that is why resilience and timely interventions are so crucial in breaking the cycle of abuse.”

Stopping the Silent Transmission of Trauma

Trauma is not always handed down. Research shows that parents can help protect their children from negative outcomes by engaging in the following protective behaviors:

  • Nurturing a close parent-child relationship that helps the child feel loved
  • Engaging in positive, open communication rather than keeping secrets
  • Monitoring their child’s activities
  • Learning and modeling emotional regulation and healthy coping skills
  • Getting treatment for addiction, trauma and/or mental health issues, if needed
  • Developing a sense of community through strong social ties or religious affiliation

Through these and other approaches, families can develop a legacy of hope and resilience rather than one of trauma and despair. “As our collective awareness and resilience to sexual violence rise, we will witness more benefits not only in treating and preventing trauma-related symptoms but in more complex conditions such as different forms of psychosis,” says Dr. Yahontova. “The traumagenic neurodevelopmental model of psychosis is being revisited now with new data and it may open a deeper understanding of the effect of transgenerational trauma on our mental health in a much broader perspective.” “We can’t always prevent trauma,” says Young, “but we can learn from it. In my family, by watching and talking about it in treatment, we stopped it sooner with each generation that suffered and each of us who were victims has become a strong woman through healing and transformation.”

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