Where the Bodies are Buried: Relational Trauma Through the Generations

As I continue my research work, the concept of transmission of relational trauma through the generations, stands out clearly against the backdrop of many of the cases of parental alienation I have worked with.

Clearly marked with significant unexplained events, the families where children who are induced to use the defence of psychological splitting in the trans-generational case of relational trauma, are indelibly marked with behaviours which are very difficult to understand.

The child who reports to their mother that they were sexually abused by their father, when there is no evidence of this at all. The children who say that their mother has broken their arms and legs, when there is nothing to be seen. Reports of harm done in circumstances where the parent accused has not been in contact with the child at all, which lead to convoluted explanations of how the parent (who was in prison at the time) could have escaped without anyone knowing to abuse the children and then slip back into custody without anyone knowing.

These are not easy situations to work with and the first rule in all trauma transmission cases is to protect the child above all else.  Unfortunately, because of the way in which so many professionals prefer to take the words of the child as the spoken truth, protection is often the last approach which is taken.

A child in a case of transmission of trauma across the generations is not speaking their own truth but is attempting to articulate an unutterable truth which has lain hidden in the inter-psychic world of someone in the family, often for decades. Finding where the bodies are buried in such families has been my abiding interest in this field, because it is clear that when the bodies are brought to the surface, the children in the here and now are liberated from the shackles of the past.

This isn’t easy work, because the purpose of secreting the trauma away in the inter and intra-psychic, is to enable the person who suffered it to continue to live without psychic disintegration.  As each generation is born, the hidden capsule of trauma is passed in the attachment, creating an unknown legacy which will erupt when the configuration of dynamics around the carrier child is right.

Most of these families present in the same way.  They are closed and inward looking, defensive and protective against the outside world, they are without boundaries on the inside.  Each person in this family has access to all information about all other members. The person who has split off and denied the trauma, may no longer be alive, but a living shrine to his/her memory will be carried within the family. You will hear the evidence of this in the hushed and reverent tones that family members use when they speak about this person. If alive, this person will be the rock of the family, the one who holds it all together, the one who survived a hell that is unspeakable.  If dead this person will quite possibly be brought alive through the naming of a child or grandchild whose life is intended to prolong the existence of the quality of the person who is revered.

Silence in these families is rare. These families talk a lot, shout a lot, make a lot of noise. They appear to be jolly and busy and to the far circles of their existence, they may be admired as being a productive and a happy family.  To the closer circles of their family, especially to the ones who do not join with the idealisation of the trauma carrier, the atmosphere is claustrophobic and slightly nauseating. The denial of the trauma produces a false familial self and an individual disconnection from authenticity.

When working with such families the protection of the children first is essential because when they are pushed into using defensive splitting, it is usually because they are becoming entangled in the manifestation of the secreted trauma.  False allegations in these cases are often bewildering because of the way in which a parent is fused to the allegation which is being made by the children. Even in the face of evidence of absolute impossibility of abuse having been carried out (as in the case of a parent in prison), the efforts that this parent who is fused to the allegation, will make to explain how it is true, make it clear that this is not abuse by a distanced parent but something else.  On separation of the child from such a parent, the retraction of the allegation is swift, leaving the bare bones of what is happening exposed.

I am not someone who believes that people who make false allegations of this nature should be punished, they have suffered enough. I do believe however, that people who carry trauma in this way and who have passed it to their children, should be prevented from forcing their children and grandchildren to carry the result of the trauma forward.

In such circumstances, where children are relieved of the burden of carrying unresolved familial trauma, I also see that if the parent or grandparent who is carrying the trauma is not assisted, their contact with the children cannot be safe.  I hope before I finish my time in this field, we will have found a way to help sufferers of this trauma to resolve it, so that they are able to provide safe contact for those children whose lives do not belong to the past but to a free and healthy future.

Alienation of a child is not a right/wrong issue, it is not about good and bad and it is not about heroes and villains. It is about the deeply complex traumatic landscapes which are inhabited by families and about the ways in which we have yet, collectively, been able to to assist them effectively.

Learning about how to work in this landscape is about understanding the depth and complexity of it, bringing up the bodies is about respect, care and service to families.

This is about working in a field hospital, not being on a battlefield. It is about understanding that each individual family suffers its own unique issues. It is about responding to those issues in ways that are tailored to the needs of each member of the family, the one who caused the problem as well as those who suffer it.

Above all this is about being human in a world which lost its humanity for someone a long time ago.

Protecting children whilst keeping that in mind is how we proceed in this landscape.


  1. Fantastic article Karen. My Ex suffered the loss of a sister to leukaemia when she was 12 and the sister just 3 years old.It tore the family apart for evermore and my Ex’s mother left the family a few years later. There is no question that this trauma is what has galvanised both the immediate and wider family in a wholly destructive way (many of them live or lived in the same locality for decades) and later engendered the selfish possessiveness, mixed with a need to own and protect her own children, that led my Ex to alienate them from me. Our eldest, very much as per my Ex’s wishes, was given the deceased sister’s name as her middle name when christened. My Ex has emphasised the bonds from the past that were destroyed and destroyed her teenage life and has transferred the pain and suffering into an exaggerated and harmful control over our children which, when she witnessed how close they grew to me, led her to completely destroy my relationship with them. This underlying family trauma catalyst will likely continue to exert it’s influence in our eldest daughters future life, unless it can be stopped. At present there is little prospect of that as my Ex has the girls under her complete and total control and there is no question that the eldest feels (though not perhaps always in evidence) a tight bond with her mother’s history and her deceased, never known, would-have-been aunt. The whole scenario is damaging and unfair to my children, especially our eldest girl, but there is nothing I can do right now to help..


    1. Perhaps, Robert, your eldest daughter will be inspired to enter the medical profession in some capacity. These family inheritances of relational trauma are not necessarily always detrimental to the child who is the ‘curse breaker’.


  2. Beautifully laid out – once again. My children are the 4th generation I have observed to benefit from the handing down of such a tradition. And to think that I ascribed the decades of baffling behavior to the in-laws being Italian…


  3. I don’t get it said John, how does an understanding of inter-generational trauma help me? My Ex is a nasty selfish bitch and there is nothing I can do about that. The Courts don’t see it and I feel frustrated and helpless. The kids have been abandoned.

    Paul, who was in charge of operations on Dandlebear bridge chipped in, “I used to think that way too he said, countering every stupid divisive and derogatory action with my own contra and defensive measures. The problem was causing my children to take sides, life in the kids two homes was becoming far too polarised. It was fast boiling down to a decision about which house was the safest to live in, my Dandlebear bridge was crumbling.

    My Ex’s bad deeds which formerly made me angry began to instead engender a feeling of pity in me because I could empathise with her.

    So what? said John indignantly.

    Well, for one thing, I was able to soothe my children’s feelings when they first arrived at my place as per compliance with the child arrangement order. Instead of angrily reacting to her out of hours intrusive phone calls I was able to view them as a natural reaction to her inherent anxieties and consequently treat them with greater respect.

    And I think my change in behaviour brought me closer to my kids, I could see them more relaxed, they could sense I had their backs.

    So where do I start said John? You start with your own genome, personalised map, family tree. I think it was Socrates who said, know thyself.


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