The transmission of trauma across generations: identification with parental trauma in children of Holocaust survivors

Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 1998 Jun;32(3):358-69. doi: 10.3109/00048679809065528.


Objective: This study examines the phenomenology of intergenerational transmission of trauma with the aim of elucidating the interactional process of transmission within an object relations framework.

Method: The method consisted of systematic textual analysis of semi-structured interviews with six Jewish women born after the war who were children of concentration camp interned Holocaust survivors.

Results: Four superordinate themes were identified: heightened awareness of parents' Holocaust survivor status, parenting style, overidentification with parents' experiences and transmission of fear and mistrust. These were found despite the variation in parental communication.

Conclusions: The data suggest that unconscious processes are at least partially involved in the transmission of trauma. A form of projective identification is proposed as an explanatory mechanism which brings together diverse aspects of the observed phenomena: projection by the parent of Holocaust-related feelings and anxieties into the child; introjection by the child as if she herself had experienced the concentration camps; and return of this input by the child in the form of compliant and solicitous behaviour associated with enmeshment and individuation problems. Further research may establish these phenomena as a particular form of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child of Impaired Parents / psychology*
  • Concentration Camps*
  • Defense Mechanisms
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Identification, Psychological
  • Intergenerational Relations*
  • Interview, Psychological
  • Jews / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Parenting / psychology
  • Personality Assessment
  • Personality Development*
  • Projection
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Survivors / psychology*