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Trauma in Training: Is Trauma Inherited?

As the old adage goes, the family is the basic unit of society. Characteristics and habits are taught and trained through parenting, morals and perspectives are shaped, and even legacies are formed. Generations cycle through; it is simply how human beings go on. However, research shows that more than just morals and the way you load a dishwasher is transferred from parent to child—parents often carry their childhood traumas into parenthood too.

Four public health graduate students teamed up with professors Ali Crandall and Michael Barnes to answer the question: How does intergenerational trauma affect family health? Their research found that the father's childhood experiences carry the most weight on the family's overall emotional health, and having good family health may decrease the transmission of trauma from parent to child.

Hands from different ages all piling onto one another
Photo by Unsplash - Luana Azevedo

The research came about when lead author and recent master’s graduate Emma Reese (‘22) was searching through the scientific literature on adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and adverse family experiences (AFE) and found a gap in the knowledge. Reese took her research ideas to Crandall.

“[Crandall] had started doing another research project that was closely aligned with what I wanted to do,” Reese explains. It worked out well for Reese to add content to Crandall’s existing questionnaire, which already focused on different aspects of family and relational health.

The questionnaire was based on The Family Health Scale, a BYU professor-developed measure that contains items about family financial resources, social and emotional health, and overall lifestyle behaviors. Questions specifically asked about violence in the home, forcible sex, poverty, and exposure to depression. Reese noted how parents’ unfortunate childhood experiences can spread like an inherited disease to their children. “We looked at intergenerational transmission because parents reflected on their own childhood experiences and their children’s [when they took the questionnaire],” Reese says.

The research sample, collected by a Qualtrics panel, was based on cohabitating families with children between the ages of three and thirteen. A portion of the sample had at least one parent of color and at least one parent with less than a high school diploma. Some of the families had legally married parents while others did not.

The final results indicated that family health plays a role in the transmission of trauma and that a father’s childhood experiences had the greatest effect on family health. Initially, this came as a surprise, until Reese and Crandall read similar research. A parent’s childhood experiences affecting family health “might be based on internalizing versus externalizing emotion,” Reese says. She explains that men are more likely to display their emotions externally while women may harbor emotions internally, which may explain why a father’s childhood trauma is more likely to become his family’s trauma as well.

Reese hopes to take the results of this research and develop a program to curb the transmission of adverse childhood experience trauma: “Prevented transmission of trauma equals a healthier family.”