• Epigenetics tells us how trauma can be passed down the generations

  • As huge numbers of Ukrainians are forced to flee their country, therapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen reflects on the lasting mental health impact

As I watch the horror of Ukraine unfold, there is the knowledge that the pain of this war, for those that live through it, will reverberate both in the short-term and for decades. So many of my clients whose families had fled their home country, even many years earlier, reveal the psychological cost of this upheaval even when it is relatively benign. 

I remember working with a young man whose family had fled Hungary for Sweden in the 1960’s when he was eight years old. Politically, Hungary had become unsafe for his parents who were both university professors. Life in Sweden was good. His parents got properly paid work and the family flourished financially. My client was successful academically, but he could not shake off a sense of sadness and depression.  

What emerged in therapy were the losses he could never articulate and which people found difficult to recognise. Everyone said how lucky he was to be in Sweden and indeed he was. But for the young child who didn’t understand political danger, he lost his childhood friends, his home and above all his beloved grandparents. It was many years before it was safe to return. This client did not have parents who had been in the concentration camps or who had fled the violence of war zones but dislocation takes its toll.

The study of epigenetics reveals that trauma affects us biologically as well as psychologically. Dr Rachel Yehuda, a leading researcher in the field wrote in 2016: ‘we respond to our environment in multiple ways that have long-lasting, transformative effects. The implications are that what happens to our parents, or perhaps our grandparents or previous generations, may help shape who we are on a fundamental molecular level that contributes to our behaviours, beliefs, strengths and vulnerabilities.'

If your parents are traumatised, their reactions to life events are heightened. 

As a therapist and a student of history, I have always been fascinated by family stories. Fleeing persecution and life-threatening situations and then having to set up a new life in another country requires courage and faith. It is never easy. Children have to grow up quickly as they are often the ones who quickly learn to speak the language of the new country. They have to explain the ‘rules’ to their parents and help them navigate new systems. This is of course not necessarily all negative but what is lost is the sense of safety and security that non-traumatised parents can give their children. Also, the children have their own traumatic memories of terror and loss. The help given to children to process their experiences and emotions will make the most enormous difference to their psychological and physical wellbeing.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a verified welldoing.org psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

It's normal to feel anxious about Ukraine: how to protect yourself from overwhelm

Why does my therapist ask about my childhood?

How to talk to children about Ukraine

The impact of growing up with a parent with mental health problems

How to manage news-induced anxiety