Fern Schumer Chapman
The quote from Michel Friedman that resonates with me is “Imagine what it means to be a child of a father and a mother who had been broken. My mother saw how her father was beaten up and murdered. My parents later tried to rebuild themselves from millions of mosaic pieces. As a child of such a family you carry more responsibilities than is good for you.”
Sadly, the Holocaust produced many mother and fathers who were “broken.” Broken parents often raise broken children. As I’ve written many times in this blog, trauma is transmitted in families.
Based upon recent studies of mice, scientists recently discovered that some animals and some people are genetically wired to develop PTSD. A team of neurobiologists at the University of Zurich found that environmental factors can alter genes that can be passed on to the next generation. This study indicates that the children of those who have been traumatized aren’t just affected by living with the disturbed parent; the anxiety can be expressed in the genes. In other words, trauma can be imperceptibly transmitted from parent to child, through nurture and nature.
But let me return to Friedman’s comments. His image of “mosaic pieces” is apt. Someone who suffers from great trauma is left with shards of themselves. Fragments. A deeply damaged self. An individual survives great trauma by denying what happened , insulating himself or herself from the memories, and splitting off the part of themselves that is damaged so that the individual doesn’t remember or feel the pain. But that individual also remains stuck in the moment the trauma occurred. They have not fully integrated the experience into their being.
Consequently, children, who live with a traumatized parent who are stuck in a younger self, perceive the parent’s vulnerabilities. The children worry about the parent’s weaknesses and try to insulate them from pains that they fear will overwhelm their parents. Consequently, we “carry more responsibilities than is good.”
What gets confused is an understanding of boundaries. What are a child’s responsibilities to a damaged parent? What is a child’s responsibility to himself or herself? What does it mean to be a good daughter or a good son? Since the demands of that role are defined by the parent’s needs, and damaged parents expect much more than is realistic, the children feel like failures as sons and daughters when they can’t meet their parent’s inappropriate needs.
Friedman says that “When his parents had died, he had felt he almost died with them.” Here again, he is alluding to a lack of boundaries. He cannot define himself without his parents’ needs or demands. The child’s identity is subsumed by the parents and the child isn’t sure where he or she begins or ends. The relationship becomes so tightly intertwined , the child isn’t sure how he or she will survive without the parent.
New research and recent understandings of trauma and its transmission in families have helped children address this experience. Often, children raised in these families aren’t aware of the psychological dynamic; they only know their own pain. But thankfully, therapists and specialists who are knowledgeable in the field are better able to help children cope with the guilt and shame children like Michel Friedman know all too well.