That idea, what researchers call “inherited trauma,” is far more complicated a concept than his declaration would have us believe. The research is relatively new, but many experts think what it suggests is that inherited trauma is our biology looking out for us, even if it may not appear that way at first.
While not many of us can relate to Prince Harry’s royal life or the trauma he endured after his mother’s death when he was 12 years old, it’s estimated that more than two-thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event by age 16. Abuse, violence, national disasters, severe illness and neglect are examples of trauma that researchers think could play a role in how future generations respond to their surroundings.
Bianca Jones Marlin is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and principal investigator of the Marlin Lab at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute. She said that inherited trauma is not about traumatic life events being able to change our DNA (or that of our children), but rather “a memory of a traumatic event in our ancestors living on in us.” Exactly how it lives on, and for what reason, is what researchers aim to discover.
The seminal study on the matter centers on the “Dutch Hunger Winter” of 1944-45 during World War II, when Nazis occupying the Netherlands restricted food transport as punishment for the Dutch government’s support of the Allies. A harsh winter and bad crops left the population with rations of less than 900 calories per day for months. Twenty-two-thousand people died.
Decades later, scientists began researching the offspring of women who were pregnant during this time. What they found, in part, was that they were heavier than average, had higher levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, and were more prone to obesity and diabetes. Even though there was no longer a risk of starvation for these offspring, it appeared that the “memory” Marlin mentioned was trying to protect their bodies from a land with no food.
Scientists have also looked at the existence of inherited trauma in groups such as the children of Holocaust survivors, Native American communities and the sons of Civil War prisoners of war, to name a few. And though the findings seem to support the idea that trauma did, in fact, lead to changes in future generations, critics have noted small sample sizes, exaggeration of causality and media sensationalism as reasons to doubt them.
Marlin, who conducts her research on mice, supports making sure the “science is rigorous” and acknowledges issues with data from others in the past. However, she said that “if I take a step back from being a scientist and am just a fellow human in society, we see inherited trauma playing out in many instances across the world; it makes sense. Now we need to identify the biology behind this inheritance, which will help us better understand and navigate the stresses of our world today.”
Experts said that studying inherited trauma is not meant to disempower or blame parents for things they cannot control. “When we think about inheriting trauma, we think of something that is not good, but really what we’re saying is that our bodies are resilient and trying to offset any potential traumas by allowing us to survive, and ultimately to thrive,” says Courtney Bolton, a Nashville-based child and family psychologist. “The issue becomes when those modifications to our genes no longer serve us.”
From a clinical perspective, Bolton thinks the research can lead to more targeted interventions and treatments for clients. “Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, inherited trauma created a gene mutation that made children more sensitive to noise as a defense mechanism. If you were prepared for that early on, then you could proactively provide intervention to help with anticipating noises, regulating anxiety and, ultimately, being able to tolerate loud noises. The more we understand how genetics influence our interaction with the environment, the better we can create behavioral interventions to offset that.”
For parents and caregivers who believe past trauma may be playing a role in their children’s lives, Bolton emphasizes establishing a safe and secure environment, with soft, physical touch playing a critical role. “As adults, we can mentally soothe ourselves by rationalizing or planning, but for young children, hugs, rubbing backs and snuggling can help them regulate their emotions. If we can use safe, loving touch to help children bond, regulate emotions and ultimately overcome inherited anxieties, then we can shift developmental trajectories in really positive ways.”
Bolton also notes that when it comes to seeking therapy for your child, it’s important for parents to be forthcoming about their history — whether they recognize certain events as “traumatic” or not.
Currently, scant researchers are dedicated to this field of study — “a few brave souls,” as Marlin refers to them. One is Moriah E. Thomason, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. Thomason’s drive comes from wanting to find earlier interventions for children who are suffering. “The fact that children are struggling from developmental disorders and challenges achieving landmarks that humans need to achieve is devastating,” she says. “As a scientist, I’m looking at a child’s symptoms, but I’m trying to get to the core. What is the purest representation of a developmental disorder?”
Her most recent work, a study she co-authored in 2020 exploring the potential impact of maternal childhood trauma on child behavioral problems, looks at certain brain activity as a possible indicator of how inherited trauma biologically presents in children.
Beyond helping to understand and treat individual cases of mental health more effectively, better understanding inherited trauma could also lead to more significant changes in society regarding groups of people who have experienced trauma because of systemic oppression, such as those affected by colonization (in this case, the descendants of the Indian Residential Schools system in Canada), slavery and racism. Thomason is most passionate about this aspect of the work. “To get economic and government support to help break these cycles of trauma, you’ve got to know that there’s a cycle, and you have to show it to people,” she says. “There’s a socio-demographic story here, and there are individuals at greater risk. We have to do this work for them. It’s critical.”
Kelly Hoover Greenway is an Austin-based television producer and writer whose work focuses on parenting and relationships, women’s health, and personal essays.