Having taken the road less travelled in my work over recent years, I have been absorbed in thinking and working with trans-generational trauma transmission, the element which most fascinates me in cases where a child is using the defence of psychological splitting.
I wrote about trans-generational haunting in 2013 and it is this element of the work that I do, which remains the most compelling in terms of understanding how the everyday trauma of divorce and separation, can let loose the ghosts which are encrypted in the family narrative.
In some cases, where a child is using the defence of psychological splitting there is a particular atmosphere which is readily recognised by experienced practitioners. Whilst all cases of alienation in a child are marked by the child’s use of defensive splitting, some cases are marked by other additional features. The markers of trans-generational trauma are those which set these cases apart from the others.
These features are those which I wrote about in the article entitled ‘growing up in a world without windows and a house without doors’ and they exemplify the atmosphere of a case of trans-generational transmission of what I have taken to calling everyday trauma.
I use the term everyday trauma to differentiate the use of trans-generational trauma transmission in families affected by divorce and separation from societal trauma. Whilst much of the literature on trans-generational trauma transmission is from the perspective of societal traumas such as genocide, some of the more complex psychoanalytical work is focused upon the ways in which the experience of trauma in everyday life is passed through the family line like an encrypted secret. It was when I first understood how trans-generational haunting takes place, that I realised that this is what I was sensing in the atmosphere of the case of trans-generational trauma repetition.
The atmosphere of a case of induced psychological splitting in a child which is trans-generational in nature is like no other. From the outset, the things said by the children in such a case are different to other cases. What is starkly apparent, is the way in which the children’s narratives mirror that of the life stories of the parents, grandparents and sometimes great grandparents. It is as if the whole family lives in a world of their own and in fact that is exactly what they do. A case of trans-generational trauma transmission, requires that anyone who is involved with the family on an intimate level, must conform to the internalised narrative of the family. To be unable or unwilling to do so, demands that the person be excluded, silenced, shunned and shamed.
This is because within the internalised walls of these families, within the inter psychic subjective life of the family lies a secret. And this secret is so secret that it is either unknown by the family members, was known but is split off into the unconscious or is known and deliberately kept hidden. Depending upon whose secret it is and how far back in the generational line the secret goes, inter psychic relationships to and with the secret will be adapted to suit the need to keep it.
When children are born into such families they attach to their care givers and inter-psychically absorb the reality that there is an encrypted secret (Salberg 2017). The secret which is never spoken about with words, is part of the unconscious life of the growing child who will, in some situations, seek to manifest an opportunity to resolve the unresolved by recreating a scenario which is similar to the original wound. This understanding, of how a child of a parent suffering trauma, seeks to attach to every aspect of the intra-psychic experience of that caregiver, even the negative, explains how that child replicates that traumatic experience in the here and now.
It is within the atmosphere of such families that access to the unspoken and encrypted knowledge is achieved.
Bako and Zana (2020) tell us that
The instigators of the trans-generational atmosphere are the traumatised first generation, and the following generations are then drawn into the atmosphere, so the atmosphere is actually a shared intrasubjective field expanded to several generations. (Page 30)
This is the atmosphere which is readily apparent in cases where fixed and fused dyadic relationships between parent and child are present and where historical patterns of loss and trauma become apparent on investigation. This is the space in which the things are not said and not given symbolic representation, where the world is divided into two parts in which the trauma is frozen alongside a life which is going on in the here and now.
Entering into such spaces causes anxiety which can become unbearable for the sufferer, who will experience the threat of the loss of the intra-subjective ‘we’ which is a clinical marker for this type of case. When this fused relational space is broken open, the projection onto the practitioner, of the split off and denied danger is a defence which is designed to prevent the loss of the part of the self which is projected onto the child (Bako and Zana 2020).
It thus follows that this work is far beyond that of a contact dispute and is far beyond that of high conflict. This is the area of work which involves psychologically unwell people, where encapsulated delusional disorder, which Dr Lowenstein told us about in 2006, is present.
A case of alienation of a child can, in this context, be thought of as a defence against the disintegration of the intra-subjective life of the family or the atmosphere. The parent who has been cast out/or who has left the family but who has refused to go away without a relationship with the child, is felt to be an interloper or intruder into the internal world of the family left behind.
In reality, when working with these families, the parent who is being rejected will often be shown to have been experiencing either rejection or inability to fit in with the family narrative for a time prior to the rejection by the child. If we think about the birth of a child in a family affected by trans-generational transmission of trauma, as being a risk factor for the family secret to be revealed, it is easy to see why many parents are evicted from the family when they will not allow baby to be brought up in the way which is necessary to keep the family internally regulated.
The atmosphere of alienation is suffocating, it is foggy and it is quite often bewildering in the way that the spoken narrative is broken and not linear. The past is not another country in these families, it is happening right now, alongside the here and now and it is manifested in ways which can only be interpreted because they cannot be easily understood cognitively.
When we enter into these spaces it should be cautiously and at first reverently, because here is where a traumatic secret resides. Whilst the purpose of our work is to take the child in the here and now to a safer place, we should recognise that in doing so, someone has been badly harmed and needs help within these walls.
It may be that this tearing of the shroud which holds the secret in place will bring enough change to the family dynamic to trigger an opportunity for healing. Or it may not. This cannot be our motivating factor however because in this work it is the child in the here and now who needs our help.
Only this way will we begin to interrupt the generational march of hidden everyday trauma, caused by harm done in the past and raised to the surface by divorce and separation.
Trans-generational trauma transmission is far away from contact and conflict. It affects a group of families suffering the overall experience of alienation and it is has an atmosphere unlike the others. It also requires a particular treatment route which meets the needs of the family as a whole, whilst protecting the child in the here and now.
If you are living this, you will know it.
If you are working with families affected by alienation you need to know it.
Abraham, N., Torok, M. and Rand, N., 1994. The Shell And The Kernel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Faimberg, H., 2005. The Telescoping Of Generations. London: Routledge.
Grand, S. and Salberg, J., 2017. Trans-Generational Trauma And The Other. London Routledge.
Bakó, T. and Zana, K., 2020. Transgenerational Trauma And Therapy. London and New York: Routledge.