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The Effects Go On and On


The understanding that trauma in parents can result in behavioural and emotional problems in children is well accepted but intervening pathways to produce this outcome are less understood. The usual linear explanation is that the higher incidence of both internalising symptoms, depression and anxiety and externalising symptoms like aggression in children are a direct consequence of harsh parenting behaviours including verbal attack and physical aggression. However, systems thinking suggests other factors, including the couple relationship may be influential.

Authors, Michael Fitzgerald, Antoinette London-Johnson and Kami L. Gallus (2020) noted a lack of any study that explored both the couple relationship and parenting as they related to transmission of trauma and the impact on children. A sample of 361 mothers involved in child welfare services participated in the study. Unlike other studies, an association between the mother’s trauma and children’s internalising and externalising symptoms was not demonstrated. However higher reports of maternal trauma were linked to negative couple relationship quality which in turn predicted children’s internalising problems of anxiety and depression. As negative relationship quality, defined as control and detachment, increased so did harsh parenting while an increase in positive relationship quality, acceptance saw a decrease in harsh parenting.

For those who work with children and families the implications are important. When a child presents with anxiety or depression our attention should extend to both the trauma history of the mother and the couple relationship. It is easy to see harsh parenting practices and blame mothers, but a fuller understanding includes both parents and the effect the couple relationship has on their wellbeing and resultant consequences for children. Working with the couple not only lifts responsibility from the child but locates it with the adults who together can make a difference to each other and the next generation.


Fitzgerald, M., London-Johnson, A and Gallus, K. (2022) Intergenerational transmission of trauma and family systems theory: an empirical investigation Journal of Family Therapy (2020) 42: 406–424

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