Much has been written of late about the transmission of trauma intergenerationally. Many researchers have even wondered how many generations are affected by trauma and have inquired about the impact of trauma cross-culturally as well as interpersonally. Curiously, considerably less has been written psychoanalytically about the transmission of resilience, the ability of humans to recover from setbacks, through the generations. Yet, we have countless examples of individuals who survived and, on more than a few occasions, surprisingly thrived, despite experiencing overwhelming tragedy, neglect, or outright cruelty. As much as we are still trying to piece together why cruelty against each other exists, we are barely in our infancy in terms of learning how resiliency comes about, how we can foster it, and whether or not it, like intergenerational trauma, can be passed down through the ages and/or across cultures. This essay will attempt to define, describe, and supply examples of resiliency transmission.

Every now and then the recovery is swift, but more often than not it takes time. To paraphrase Harry Stack Sullivan: please save me from an analysis that goes too well too quickly. In the world of physics, it represents the capacity of matter to spring back into shape after being bent, stretched, or otherwise deformed. In both the human and the physical world, it is seen as buoyancy, pliability, elasticity, and flexibility.

Let me give a personal example of an unusually resilient

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woman, my Mom, Shirley Seitler, who was uprooted from mother Russia/Ukraine at a very young age when she moved with her parents to Canada. Not long after their trek to Canada, her mother died when my Mom was just a child. Her father, as was the custom then, married his late wife’s sister, a traditional practice called sororate marriage. He then fathered four children with his “new” wife. Interestingly enough, while my Mom had lost her natural mother, her siblings did not. At once, my mother was both the eldest, and simultaneously, an only child. She always felt apart and different from her siblings. For example, the sibling who was born four or five years after my mother often referred to herself as the oldest. I suspect that this did not sit well with my mother.

Her father was somewhat of a do-it-my-way-or-else family tyrant. So oppressive was the weight of his authority that my mother left home when barely a teenager and journeyed from the tundra of Winnipeg, Manitoba, to New York City when she was merely 17 years old or thereabouts. It was unheard of for most women to travel alone over such great distances in those days, and even more so for a female adolescent to be unescorted. Desperation can partially explain my mother’s need to get away from what she perceived as her father’s reign of terror, but it cannot sufficiently clarify what gave her the ability to make and carry out a plan to do so, much less explain how she succeeded in making a new life for herself in New York City.

This dramatically contrasts with many people we know who are unable to extricate themselves from destructive relationships, yet she was somehow able to do so, even after suffering the loss of her natural mother as well as both her native and adopted countries. There she was, all on her own and quite alone, leaving for still another country that she knew nothing about. Years later, in her 60s, she developed breast cancer and, subsequently, lung cancer. She whipped them both and lived into her 80s.

What inner strength did she possess that allowed her to take on and rise above these hardships? Simply looking at her provides no clues. She was less than five feet tall, with a small, fine-boned structure, and petite features. To give you a snapshot idea of how small my mother was, let me simply say that she wore size five shoes. She was not frail by any means, but simply looking at her would not reveal that fact. Rather, her behavior, countenance, demeanor, and the way that she carried herself as well as conducted her life was what more accurately described her.

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In one instance, I recall a time that I accompanied her to the local bank. For some reason, the teller was discourteous to my mother. Gently, but firmly, she reproached him for his ill-mannered demeanor. Despite her admonition, he continued to act quite disrespectfully. Refusing to be treated this way, she calmly asked him to call his supervisor. He countered by trying to pressure her to get her business over with—because, as he said, “there is a long line gathering,” which was a thinly veiled attempt to make her feel self-conscious, shut her down, and ultimately move her along. In reply, my mother merely turned to the people in the line and asked them if they minded waiting a little longer. They apparently had heard what was going on and in unison said that they would wait. At that point, the teller finally (but undoubtedly reluctantly) gave my mother what she had requested from the outset.

Why did this tiny woman not succumb to his obvious bullying? What is it that allows someone who is being mistreated to “stand his or her ground,” so to speak, without violence or any great fanfare? What are the essential ingredients that not only constitute assertiveness but also are the building blocks of resiliency? Can they and their origins be discerned and described? Let’s look at another example.

Henri Parens (who just died this year) was 12 years old when he and his mother were rounded up in 1943 and taken to the Rivesaltes concentration camp in southern France. His mother told him that he must escape and made a series of astute observations about the place, carefully laying out a plan for him to crawl under the barbed wire at a certain time when the electrified fence was briefly turned off. Even though he was only 12, he managed to free himself, make his way to Marseilles, and eventually get to America. Three months after he arrived in America, he learned that his mother had been taken to Auschwitz and murdered. Nevertheless, in a personal communication back in 2010, he said, “I always felt that my mother was in me.” Henri added, “I had a lot of help. A lot of people helped me. The Wagners took another refugee boy and me in.” Henri then queried, “What would make such people do such a thing as take me in when they had 3 children of their own and did not have much money. I went to medical school. I’m a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst.”

In 1982 and 1996, Werner and Smith published the results of their research regarding 660 high-risk Kauai Islander children who they studied longitudinally for 32 years, using data derived

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from their own observations and those of a team of pediatricians, public health nurses, psychologists, and social workers. They chronicled their results in their initial treatise, Vulnerable but Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth (now regarded as a classic in studies of this sort). Since that time, others have offered more recent research on the subject. Liu et al. (2022) found that higher levels of parenting self-efficacy mitigated negative infant emotional reactivity, despite pressures and stresses associated with discrimination and the need for assimilation into society. These findings support the idea that although we are all vulnerable at one time or another, it does not automatically mean that we are doomed to submit to Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

In a series of studies of children whose parents were diagnosed as psychotic, James Anthony (1987) found that at least 10% of those children never showed signs of psychosis. Despite an obvious set of circumstances that most would predict would be detrimental to one’s emotional well-being, somehow these children were spared. This suggests several things. One is that these children became “good copers.” The second is that emotional distress is not necessarily genetic, even in the most severe situations. Anthony referred to children like these as “the invulnerables.” He writes about the contribution of playfulness, laughter, curiosity, and flexibility to resiliency. But this still begs the question, how were such children able to acquire or develop these attributes?

Attachment theorists believe that resilience develops in the early object-related bonds between parent and child. Characteristically, the level and quality of security during a child’s first two years is a good predictor of the attributes associated with resiliency. Securely attached children have greater opportunities for experiencing the advantages of adaptive social behavior, improved affect regulation, and the ability for enduring challenging task situations.

Based on their experiences with caregivers, children presumably develop expectancies and generalizations about how they will be treated by their caregivers in particular and their social world in general. Attachment researchers have noted the following: On the one hand, after having undergone Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation,” securely attached children seem to anticipate being treated empathically afterward. On the other hand, avoidant children appear disinterested, possibly in an attempt to withstand or delay the experience of their painful difficulty in expressing their emotional

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needs to a detached caregiver or possibly to reduce their tension emanating from an excessively intrusive caregiver. It is assumed that these feelings, in conjunction with early attachments and resulting behaviors, become the overarching organizational prototypes for how the child will interact with the social world and, subsequently, with their own child. These factors have implications regarding how resiliency is developed and subsequently if and how it may be transmitted. The principal factors determining a parent’s proclivity to and capacity for transmitting in/security, for example, are largely dependent on the parent’s internalized (often unconscious) conceptualization of how to interact in relation to a child.

The question remains: Can the traits that make up resiliency be transmitted through the generations? If so, how can this be done? Or, as Masten (1989) wrote: “to understand and prevent maladaptation, we will do well to understand resilience in development; they are different parts of the same story” (p. 290). Fonagy et al.’s (1994, p. 236) answer to the question: “is there such a thing as intergenerational resilience?” is a resounding yes. They assert that the caregiver develops an internal model of interaction with the child and that it is this internal working model of secure attachment through which insecure attachment (anxious, ambivalent, or disorganized) becomes transmitted. They further assert that the process of transmission is caregiver-specific. In addition, individuals who are at risk for possibly transmitting their own insecurity but do not do so (despite themselves) may have the distinguishing signature of a highly complex internalized working model regarding configurations of relational interaction.

While the above studies suggest that securely attached children develop better resilience than those who were not securely attached, it does not account for those children who were not securely attached, many of whom survived, and some who even thrived. For example, could my mother have had a secure attachment? If we delimit the window in which secure attachment takes place to the first two years of life and assume that it was positive, then it is at least conceivable in theory that this may have been the basis for her later capacity to withstand and overcome major life crises. However, with all of the early losses and authoritarianism that she endured so early in her life, it is less likely for that to have been the case. Even if it were so, we know that the ego of a young child is much more brittle than someone who is older and thus there is a very distinct possibility that her family situation impacted her in profoundly

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deleterious ways. Unfortunately, there is insufficient information either way to derive an indisputable conclusion. Wondering aloud about the negative effects—if they really existed beyond my mother’s depiction of her father’s dominion—and if they really were as horrendous as she claimed, what was it that sustained her?

Sometimes in the absence of a firm base, one invents solidity and achieves stability through fantasy. My observations of my mother as I was growing up suggest to me that she was a dreamer, but one who was grounded sufficiently in reality to be able to function at a very high level. Yet, all the same, she enjoyed and indulged her fantasies and wishes in the world of make-believe. She especially idealized the future. Nevertheless, she was able to live in the here and now because, if I understood her reasoning correctly, by working hard today, the future eventually would be wonderful. I suspect that what she dreamed about, in addition to the quintessential knight in shining armor (enter my father), was being able to have children. I believe that through having and caring for children she was able to vicariously derive a feeling of interpersonal connectedness and love, and through that, finally, gain security. And that is the main point. If, in fact, she did not experience secure attachment early on, she nonetheless was able to do well in life because she learned that by giving love, she was able to identify with it, receive it, and introject the source of it. She used to say, “I live for my children.” While she certainly sacrificed practically everything for my brother and me, I also believe that this meant that her children supplied her with life.

Finally, even when attachment starts as insecure, it is not preordained or destined that one will be unable to form solid interpersonal connections later on. Rather, as the reference to my mother’s history suggests, early deprivation may be mitigated by vicarious identification with a good object. Even a fantasy object, such as a character in a harlequin novel (which she adored), a comic book figure like Wonder Woman, the Statue of Liberty, or, in my case, a baseball hero like Willy Mays, may do quite nicely.

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References:

  • Anthony, E. James (1987). Risk, vulnerability, and resilience: An overview. Guilford Press.
  • Fonagy, Peter; Steele, Miriam; Steele, H.; Higgitt, A.; & Target, Mary (1994). The theory and practice of resilience. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 35(2), 231-257.
  • Liu, Sabrina R., Sandman, Curt A., Davis, Elysia Poggi, & Glynn, Laura M. (2022). Intergenerational risk and resilience pathways from discrimination and acculturative stress to infant mental health. Cambridge Press.
  • Masten, Ann S. (1989). Resilience in development: Implications of the study of successful adaptation for developmental psychopathology. In D. Cicchetti (Ed.), The emergence of a discipline: Rochester symposium on developmental psychopathology. Erlbaum Publishers, pp. 262-294.
  • Werner, Emmy E., & Smith, Ruth S. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. McGraw-Hill Book Company.
  • Werner, Emmy E. (1996). Vulnerable but invincible: High risk children from birth to adulthood. European child & adolescent psychiatry5, 47-51.

Authors:

Burton Norman Seitler

Burton Norman Seitler, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice, Director of the New Jersey Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis, a board member of the  International Society for Ethical Psychiatry and Psychology, and is on the Editorial Boards of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, and the International Journal of Controversial Discussions. He is also a Research Associate of the Psychohistory Forum and may be contacted at binsightfl1l@gmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Seitler, B. N. (2022). Can resilience be transmitted intergenerationally? Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 28-34.

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