Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Witnessing the Effects of Political Violence in Families: Mechanisms of Intergenerational Transmission and Clinical Interventions

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Witnessing the Effects of Political Violence in Families: Mechanisms of Intergenerational Transmission and Clinical Interventions

Article excerpt

In this era of globalization, when news about political violence can haunt anyone, anywhere, those whose families have suffered political violence in the past are particularly vulnerable to current distress. Skilled in understanding transgenerational processes, family therapists need to be familiar with the mechanisms by which children are exposed to the effects of political violence suffered by their elders-that is, the ways in which they become their witnesses. This article presents a framework for understanding how the trauma of political violence experienced in one generation can "pass" to another that did not directly experience it, and proposes a model to guide clinical intervention.

A young child, maybe 3 or 4 years old, is hugging his mother, arms tightly locked around her knees. Tears sliding down her cheeks, the mother clings to her soldier husband who is about to board a ship/a plane, heading off to a foreign land-the Persian Gulf/Afghanistan/the Balkans. The photograph starkly shows: The global is personal.

There are no boundaries to the intimate reach of political violence. What happens in one part of the world reaches the bodies and minds of peoples in other parts of the world. A war in Europe or the Middle East shows up years later in the cells of American youngsters as surely as it does in casualties in both those countries.

This is no mere metaphor. At continued peril to all, we obscure the fact that traces of distant past political conflicts surface in current situations at home. Residues of the Vietnam War can be found in a family fight this month in Omaha, Nebraska. The 80-year-old World War II veteran who marches in the 2003 Memorial Day parade, holding his teen-aged granddaughter's hand, transfers to her, whether he tells her or not, the import of his "seeing" images of his fallen comrades. These are both examples of intergenerational transmission of trauma, a topic family therapists need to understand better to serve the families we see today.

Curiously, although most therapists accept that they themselves are vulnerable to unwanted effects when they hear about the suffering of those who have experienced trauma, called "secondary traumatization" (Figley, 1995; Stamm, 1999; Yassen, 1995) and/or "vicarious traumatization" (McCann & Pearlman,1990; Pearlmam & Saakvitne, 1995), they have been more reluctant to accept that family members, whose exposure is constant, also feel the impact (Auerhahn & Laub, 1998). In the family therapy field, this minimization of familial transmission of trauma is apparent. For example, in a survey of basic competencies needed by beginning therapists using a transgenerational approach, assessing transmission of trauma is not among the list of 77 items nominated by senior family therapy educators (Nelson, Heilbrun, & Figley, 1993).

In this article, I review current understanding of the mechanisms by which the experiences of trauma in one generation are "passed" to those in another in the hopes that providing family therapists with this information will encourage them to incorporate this domain of inquiry into their work with families. This phenomenon, referred to variously, as "intergenerational transmission of trauma," "multi-generational legacies of trauma," and "vertical transmission of intergenerational trauma" (Danieli, 1998a) refers to the belief that a family member who has experienced trauma can "expose" another member to "residues" of that trauma, even though the exposed family member does not directly experience that trauma. In this article, I am focusing on a subset of trauma, that of the trauma of political violence.

Most therapists readily recognize that children are at risk if they are exposed to political violence themselves. Similarly, most of us would agree that children are doubly at risk when they are directly exposed to political violence and witness the effects of the same political violence on their parents (e. …

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