Please Note: Only COVID-19 vaccinated adults and children over 5 can attend the Clinic.

Safe on the Outside but Where Does the Trauma Go?

Natural disasters, famine, political upheavals, and war have seen a doubling of people displaced from their homes from 41 to 82.4 million in the past decade. They leave unimaginable circumstances and past research has explored how parental traumatic experiences ‘may negatively affect the socio-emotional development and mental health of their children, possibly leading to the transmission of psychopathology.’ While communication about past trauma is recognised as an important relational dynamic affecting well-being of children, previous studies have taken a uni-directional approach with transmission of trauma understood as moving from parent to child.

A Different Perspective

Kevers et. al. (2024) adopted a different view in their study of Kurdish refugee families who had resettled in Belgium. They were interested to understand interactional dynamics and how parents and children ascribe meaning to the disclosure and silence surrounding their past.

The Study

Five families who had applied for asylum due to persecution through political engagement or ethnic belonging and had lived in contexts of armed conflict for long periods of time, engaged in a multi-phased research process. This included semi-structured family interviews, participant observation, parental interviews, and observation of parent-child interactions.

What did they find?

Like earlier studies, this research showed that parents and children rarely or explicitly spoke of the families’ experiences of violence. This was an active, intentional, and mutual strategy in the parent-child relationship designed to protect each other. It was also related to  ‘the experience of meaninglessness and social disconnection in a history of violence; and parents’ orientation toward a nonviolent future for their children.’ Parents found themselves walking a fine line between wishing to convey a sense of solidarity with the ongoing struggle for freedom from oppression for their people and wanting to protect their children from engaging in the violence of the struggle.

The results also demonstrated four modes of indirect trauma communication in each of the families, showing that intra-family memories of collective violence occur in more subtle ways. These were ‘(1) focusing on the repetition of violence in the present; (2) transmission of the collective trauma history; (3) family storytelling; and (4) interaction with meaningful objects of the past.’ The authors note that this study showed that the fragile balance between approaching and avoiding the painful past was also regulated by children, resulting in a process of mutual gatekeeping in which both parents and children carefully balance disclosure.

The Implications for Clinical Practice

For those who work with refugee families, this study validates the importance of silence ‘as an active position in coping with trauma, in which survivors reclaim power and mobilize an inversion of the helplessness invoked by traumatic life events’. It speaks to the need to engage with both silence and open remembrance as ways to restore safety and continuity. The four modes of indirect trauma communication identified in the study, can be invited into the therapeutic dialogue by the practitioner, to ‘validate or strengthen relational attunement that underpins patterns of modulation that exist in families, and equally mobilize cultural and communal belonging within family relationships as vehicles of continuity and meaning.’


Kevers, R., de Smet, S., Rober, P., Rousseau, C., & De Haene, L. (2024). Silencing or silent transmission? An exploratory study on trauma communication in Kurdish refugee families. Family Process, 00, 1–23. https://doi. org/10.1111/famp.12996

Free weekly
director’s notes
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

By subscribing you agree to receive marketing communications from Bower Place. You can unsubscribe at any time or contact us to have your details deleted from our database.