Parent-Child Trauma Communication: Exploration of a Proposed Mechanism for the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

Annie Fox

Major Professor: Keith D Renshaw, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Tara Chaplin, Ali Weinstein

Online Location, Online
July 12, 2022, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM


Decades of research have highlighted the multi-generational impacts of trauma within families (Kellerman, 2001; Leen-Feldner et al., 2013). The bulk of research in this area has focused primarily on biological underpinnings associated with the transmission of trauma’s effects from parents to children (Bowers & Yehuda, 2016), neglecting the potential influence of the family environment. The ways in which a parent communicates with their child about their own experiences of trauma may have significant impacts on whether the effects of trauma are ‘passed down’ from one generation to the next. However, there has been only modest research to date examining the nature of trauma communication between parents and children, with no validated measures of such communication. This dissertation built upon these gaps in the literature by exploring the adaptation of existing communication measures to examine parent-child trauma discussions, and then using those measures to evaluate the role of communication in the relationship between parent and offspring psychological distress.

Data were collected online from 216 adult, undergraduate college students who knew or suspected that their parent had survived a traumatic event. Participants reported on their parents’ index trauma and perceptions of their parents’ posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during their own childhood, as well as their own current psychological distress. Additionally, participants answered numerous questions about the nature of trauma communication between themselves and their parent across their upbringing (e.g., frequency, length) and their reactions to such conversations. In Study 1, I evaluated these measures, finding that a global measure with 5 items about parent-child trauma communication was a valid and reliable tool to assess offspring perceptions of such discussions. Furthermore, consistent with hypotheses, both frequency and length evidenced a significant, curvilinear relationship with offspring perceptions. Moderate levels of frequency and length were each associated with the most positive ratings of communication by offspring, whereas high and low levels of each were associated with poorer ratings. In addition, most offspring reported that they believed their parent should discuss traumatic experiences with them, and that it would have been most appropriate to do so in their adolescence. These results indicate that thorough (but not overly extensive) discussions of trauma elicit the most positive responses from offspring.

The second paper built upon the results of the first by exploring the role of such communication in the relationship between perceived parent PTSD symptoms and offspring psychological distress. Path analyses revealed that communication quality partially mediated the relationship between parent PTSD symptoms and offspring distress; moreover, frequency of communication moderated the relationship between parent PTSD and offspring distress, such that the positive association weakened as communication frequency increased. The results of the second paper again suggest that adequate amounts of communication about trauma by parents may help to mitigate the possibility of intergenerational trauma, particularly in the presence of parental PTSD symptoms.