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22.12.2020 | ז טבת התשפא

Complex Post-Trauma is Inherited

Children of the Rwanda genocide survivors suffer complex trauma, even if born years after the massacre. The way in which the parents cope with their distress is probably the cause of inter-generational transmission


Research among second-generation Holocaust survivors indicates that children of survivors, who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), are at higher risk of developing PTSD themselves. Similar findings arise from research led by Prof. Amit Shrira, along with Dr. Benjamin Mollov of Bar-Ilan University and Chantel Mudahogora, a therapist who survived the Rwanda massacre. Twenty-five years after the Tutsi tribe massacre in Rwanda, it seems that inter-generational influence is present there as well. The horrors witnessed by the Tutsi tribe members left a mark in their grown children, even those born after 1994, when the genocide took place.

Sixty pairs of survivor parents and 60 of their grown children participated in the research. They all answered a questionnaire regarding their mental state. Three groups of parents were found: about a third suffered from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) – a new diagnostic category which includes anxiety attacks, nightmares and destabilizing memories; they felt helpless and had trouble with close relationships. About a quarter or more of the parents suffered “simple” PTSD, reliving traumatic events and loss, haunted by a sense of danger. The third and largest group (40%) did not have PTSD symptoms and was surprisingly resilient. The sense of mourning among parents of the third group did not disrupt their lives at a high enough level to be clinically diagnosed.

It was found that the harsher the parents’ symptoms, the more severe the symptoms their grown children suffered. The grown children of the CPTSD parents’ group had the highest level of secondary trauma, with symptoms relating to their parents’ trauma. They experienced nightmares involving the massacre, and were restless and overly tense.

According to the researchers, the Tutsi tribe parents who served as models for coping and open discussion of their loss might create a significant change in their children, a phenomenon well-known to families of Holocaust survivors. It is unclear why some of the survivors transmit the trauma to the next generation while others do not. It is known that sensitivity to trauma might be genetically and epigenetically inherited, but the way in which parents deal with distress probably contributes to it as well, since the transmission of trauma has to do, among other things, with the way the story is told.

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