What is an intergenerational trauma

Transgenerational Traumatization: Breaking the Vicious Cycle

A broad-based research project initiated by the “Child Sexual Abuse” round table aims to investigate the causes of the “cycle of abuse” in order to be able to offer therapies.

Mothers who were victims of abuse or neglect by close caregivers in their childhood suffer the consequences for a lifetime. They often mistreat or neglect their children themselves. In many cases, their ability to care is fundamentally impaired, and the affected mothers are unable to classify their children's feelings and react appropriately. "This 'cycle of abuse' can continue for generations," said Prof. Dr. med. Romuald Brunner, Clinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Heidelberg University Hospital, on the occasion of the start of the research project "From Generation to Generation: Breaking the Vicious Circle of Traumatization".

As part of the cooperating sub-projects of the Berlin University Medical Center, the Heidelberg University Hospital, the RWTH Aachen University Hospital and the Otto Guericke University Magdeburg, an attempt is now being made to understand the causes of this cycle of abuse and trauma in order to find out how the "vicious circle" is broken can be. "We do basic research and clinical application," explained project spokesman Brunner when presenting the research project. The Federal Ministry for Education, Research and Technologies (BMBF) is funding the project with 1.2 million euros for three years as part of the research network "Abuse, Neglect and Violence in Children and Adolescents", which was initiated by the "Child Sexual Abuse" round table . "Empirical research is part of a culture of looking out and protecting children," emphasized Dr. Helge Braun, Parliamentary State Secretary in the BMBF.

It is now known that traumatic childhood experiences lead to reduced maternal sensitivity and less empathic upbringing. The mother's increased impulsiveness and hostility make it difficult to deal with conflict situations with the child. The mother herself experiences increased subjective stress in the relationship with her child, which is explained, among other things, by a disturbed hormonal stress axis. Mediated through the mother's own upbringing experiences, changes in the child's hormonal stress axis can occur. The traumatization and the insecure attachment of the affected mother lead to a reduced availability of oxytocin, with the result that the interaction with her child is experienced as unrewarding. There are also initial indications that emotional neglect epigenetically reduces the release of oxytocin in the child's hypothalamus.

Mothers with depression

So much for the background: In the next few years, many unanswered questions will be investigated in the sub-projects. Prof. Dr. med. Felix Bermpohl, Charité Psychiatric University Clinic in St. Hedwigs Hospital and Berlin School of Mind and Brain, presented the Berlin project that focuses on mothers with depressive disorders as a reaction to traumatic experiences. The aim is to examine how depressive disorders affect psychosocial and neurobiological correlates of maternal sensitivity, as well as affect regulation, hostility and the potential for child abuse. The quality of life, responsiveness, development and psychopathology of the associated children between the ages of six and eleven are examined. The project is based at the adult and child and adolescent psychiatry of the Charité. An interaction-focused intervention is also evaluated, which is used in the “consultation hours for mothers with depression and their children” offered at the St. Hedwigs Hospital. Bermphohl pointed out that participants are still being sought for the project.

Severely traumatized mothers

The Berlin data will then be compared with data from the Clinic for General Psychiatry at Heidelberg University Hospital. Prof. Dr. med. Sabine Herpertz examines mothers with trauma but without depression. "We can fall back on a random sample that examined traumatized mothers and their babies between 2004 and 2005," reported clinic director Herpertz. These mothers are now to be examined again with the children who are now seven to eight years old. The basic question is: "How does the transgenerational transmission of negative childhood experiences work, and how can it be stopped?"

Teenage mothers

The project of Prof. Dr. med. Beate Herpertz-Dahlmann, Clinic for Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy for Children and Adolescents, University Hospital of RWTH Aachen University, deals specifically with mothers under the age of 20. In Germany, as in other industrialized countries, teenage pregnancies occur more frequently among girls with a low socio-economic status and a lower level of education. "Teen mothers suffer more often than adult mothers from traumatic childhood experiences and postpartum depression," said the clinic director. In dealing with their child, they showed less sensitivity and less loving behavior. Teen mothers were therefore a high risk group for child neglect and abuse, especially when added family stressors.

The aim of the study is to examine the effects of a nine-month structured parent-child intervention program ("TeeMo") on maternal sensitivity and the child's development. In addition, the neurobiological mechanisms that lead to unfavorable parenting behavior being passed on from one generation to the next should be considered.

Finally, at the Institute for Biology at Otto Guericke University Magdeburg, Prof. Dr. Anna Katharina Braun and Dr. Jörg Bock used animal models to investigate the epigenetic mechanisms of transgenerational, neuronal and synaptic changes in prefront-limbic-hypothalamic circuits after perinatal stress experiences. In recent years it has already been proven that disorders of the mother-child relationship have negatively influenced the maturation of prefront-limbic-hypothalamic circuits and the development of socio-emotional behavior. "The underlying epigenetic mechanisms are still almost unknown," said Braun.

Petra Bühring

Further information: Prof. Dr. med. Felix Bermpohl, Charité Psychiatric University Clinic in St. Hedwig Hospital, phone: 030 2311-2949, email: [email protected]