Summary of the Eighth Meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors in Boro Park

Building on the topics presented over the course of the previous meetings of the Discussion Group for Children of Survivors, the last four meetings (the 7th through the 10th) are focused on the present implications of what we have learned from research about the second generation; how we can gain insights to improve relationships and well-being for the children of survivors at this phase in our lives.

A particularly important topic for families of Holocaust survivors is relational competence. Relational competence requires the capacity to be reasonably available and attuned to the other person’s needs in the here and now, as opposed to responding from our own traumatic wounds. To demonstrate good relational competence, one also needs to be able to be in good control of one’s own emotional reactivity, so that the responses to interactions within significant relationships, even when one is upset or angered, are not too frightening or overwhelming to the other, be it a spouse or in particular, one’s children. However, adult onset trauma can interfere with both spousal and parental “relational competence” by introducing disturbing affects and automatic, dysregulated responses that are trauma-related rather than appropriate for the here-and-now.

Good and loving Holocaust survivor parents, who continued to suffer from post-traumatic reactions, might have exhibited emotional dysregulation, as is poignantly depicted in a scene in the movie “Fugitive Pieces” which was shown at an earlier meeting in this series: the young child of survivors is sitting on the sofa, nestled against his father, eating an apple while listening to the adults’ conversation. Then the child gets bored, slips off the sofa, and on his way out of the room he puts down the half-eaten apple. The father is triggered by the waste of the half-eaten apple and explosively scolds his son, telling him of the terrible deprivation he suffered in the camps. The previous safety and warmth that was evident between father and son earlier is abruptly disrupted, as the boy’s eyes are transfixed with hurt and fear at his father’s rage.

Even the opposite of emotional outbursts, the conscious attempts by parents to shield their children from certain knowledge of parental traumatic experiences, can leave felt “holes” in the child’s sense of their own capacity to understand and in their feeling of a shared understanding. These relational deficits in the sense of the child ‘knowing’ and understanding their parent; in the child’s sense of being understood by the parent, and the uncertainty in the child’s sense of security and predictability about the responses of the parents, intrude into the intergenerational relationships via symptoms of PTSD and trauma-related relational themes. Such intrusion of frightening experiences, where the parent seems extremely upset, frightened or anxious, or where the parent’s response is frightening to the child, lead to experiences of “failed intersubjectivity” in the intergenerational relationship. Growing up with survivor parents whose capacity for relational competence was compromised might have not allowed their children to learn the relational skills necessary to have good relational competence in their own relationships.

Children accommodate psychologically to their environment, and parents are the most important aspect of their environment during childhood and adolescence. Parental persistent post-traumatic reactions, or even the child’s own awareness to parental prior trauma and loss, create, as one researcher put it, “an inordinate concern” and sensitivity in children for their parents’ well-being. As a result, the child often feels required to adhere to the emotional needs of parents at the expense of his or her own psychological distinctness. The children of trauma survivor parents, as has been observed by research into many trauma-exposed populations in addition to Holocaust survivor families, often experiences a certain lack/loss of parental emotional availability/understanding because parents who continue to suffer from post-traumatic reactions might be over-reactive or numb and detached; either is experienced by their children as an inability to offer adequate parental support when needed. Permanent relational tendencies are shaped by repetitive patterns of relating in the family. The goal of our accommodations is to protect against intolerable pain and existential anxiety, in other words, to allow one to adapt and survive in the best possible way within the particular circumstances of their family, so they can get positive responses and avoid negative consequences.

In order to think more consciously about the psychological accommodations and relational learning that you might have taken from your own family environment, and understand better your relationships in the present, there is an important question you need to ask yourself and your partner:

-What I learned in childhood about relationships is…

-The way I adapted to living in my family was…

I asked the participants to write down some answers, which many kindly did. I will share with the group the compilation of these answers, and compare the experiences of this group with other samples of children of survivors in the research literature.

Studies of the second generation, as we discussed earlier, show that they had greater difficulties in comparison with non-Holocaust related peers in separating and individuating from their parents. Children of survivors often describe difficulties putting their own needs ahead of their parents. As a result, many had a harder time moving out and making life-style decisions that would hurt parents. When it is hard to communicate openly with parents and negotiate compromises, some children rebel. When children cause pain to parents who suffered so much, they might be perceived as “bad”, risking negative responses from parents and others, as well as negative self-perceptions which can stay with them for life.

Although in general there is no evidence for higher rates of psychopathological disorder in the children of survivors as a group, higher rates of disorders among them were reportedly experienced while they were younger (and still living at home) but not later. It appears that for many, new experiences and relationships provided an opportunity for “free therapy” that life sometimes offers. However, a recent study offered evidence for persistent higher levels of secondary stress symptoms and lower differentiation of self in adult children of survivors who are now in midlife.

So what does that mean today in our current relationships?

Marriages of the second generation have been shown to suffer from some difficulties related to the issues mentioned above. Daughters of survivors showed more problematic relationships with their partners, and had a greater tendency to enter into ambivalent relationships from the beginning. It is my interpretation that this tendency was a ‘perfect’ solution to conflicting messages in the relationships with survivor parents: on one hand, to bring ‘nachat’ and grandchildren, and on the other, not to trust/love anyone outside the nuclear family as much as one should or can love the parents, who have done so much for their children. Many daughters of survivors express having had difficulties putting their needs and their parents’ needs aside, in order to attend to the needs of their children, and have led lives more intertwined with the lives of their parents. Most telling are findings that show that daughters of survivors were less able to access spousal support (and also support from their mothers) in time of crisis, such as when battling cancer. In my experience, sons also show the same pattern, hiding from their parents that they are dealing with serious illness, that they suffered heart attacks, and other serious life crises. The inability to access support from a spouse brings to the fore the learned relational adaptation that children of survivors bring from their families of origin, where they felt they cannot worry or upset their parents. However, the current spouse of partner might be different from the parent, able and willing to provide support. It might be time for the child of survivor to re-examine their own ability to allow and accept greater closeness and support from spouses and significant others.

Parenting their own children was, in light of their own experiences with their parents, a complex task for many children of survivors. Studies show that the children of survivors experienced higher levels of anxiety, more suffering, less satisfaction, and less flexibility in responsiveness toward their own children. Although highly committed to their new family, there were often high levels of tension and difficulties associated with it for the second generation. The third generation has been shown to perceive their parents, the second generation, as less encouraging independence. As the second generation is now in midlife, these difficulties in the relationships with children during previous phases might color the relationships with adult children who have moved away and established their own families. However, there is also an opportunity for change if parents become more aware of the ways in which they might have contributed to the problems, and model more positive relational competence.

Research looking at the third generation found that they were over-represented by 300% in a child psychiatry clinic population, and that they have more eating disorders. In one study, parents and teachers identified higher levels of fear, neurotic behavior, aggression, social withdrawal, and inhibition in the third generation. In another, the evaluations by their peers showed the third generation to be less well-adapted than others. Yet another study found higher levels of secondary traumatic stress (related to the Holocaust) and lower differentiation of self in the third generation. On the other hand, another study showed that the third generation was rated higher by parents in self-esteem and coping, and lower in behaviors indicative of severe psychopathology. The picture is thus complex, as in the second generation, strongly indicating that vulnerabilities and resiliencies co-exist side by side in the descendants of survivors, and that the particular response of individuals is highly dependent on many variables.

The previous meeting introduced the concept of “icebergs in the deep”, deeply held convictions that we are often not fully aware of holding. Another previous meeting focused on the particular strengths and vulnerabilities associated with growing up in Holocaust survivor families, which constitute such deeply ingrained values and attitudes. Midlife might be a time associated with particularly triggering challenges for the 2nd Generation, touching upon their unique vulnerabilites. Sensitivity to severe traumatic responses to life’s challenges, to loss and to perceived abandonment, loneliness, and lack of parental emotional availability during earlier years might render the children of survivors particularly sensitive to the death of parents and the premature loss of other friends and relatives, which tend to happen more frequently as one ages, and to changes in one’s own work-related status, income and “busy-ness”. In particular, the changes in relationships with adult children might cause painful feelings for second generation parents, who were shown to have poorer family communication and are overly sensitized to conflict by their own relational histories.

It is at this time in life, and due to all of the above changes and transitions, that the couple relationship becomes even more important as a resource for support. The longest study ever conducted on adult development has shown that having someone that one feels very close and known by, is one of the most important ways to lead a happy life (see Ted Talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness ).

Some of the changes that midlife brings might in fact be assets in improving our relational competence and our couple relationships. By this time in life, one has already accomplished many of the professional and financial goals that were the focus of other phases, at times not having left enough energy or time for the relationships. Age brings some new perspective on things, new priorities, and on the basis of past accomplishments, also more confidence, which in turn can allow for greater self-knowledge. We can face things we might have not been willing or able to face earlier on. The couple relationship can benefit greatly from these new capacities.

We “know” a lot of things about ourselves and our relationships that live only in the periphery of our verbal, conscious knowledge. These non-conscious contents are our “hot buttons”, related to automatic emotional responses anchored in the past. Now, in midlife, we just might be ready to drag them into the forefront in order to have better possibility to respond with more conscious, intentional ways to relationships in the present.

The meeting addressed in detail some of the experiences of the second generation which have been identified by research to be common among the second generation and can be “hot buttons” in current relationship. In brief, some to these include various manifestation of parental emotional unavailability or inability to be attuned to the child’s inner world. Such experiences might leave one with a tendency to feel that the other is unavailable or doesn’t care about oneself; to be unable to ask/access the support one needs, for fear of it not being there; or with a tendency for being too demanding in a futile attempt to “prove” to oneself that indeed, this time around, “What I feel counts”, which ends up distancing the other.

Other hot buttons might be associated with the over-arching need observed in children of survivors to protect their parents. In the past this need interfered with greater autonomy, and in the present can also leave some children of survivors weary about stating their own needs in relationships when these conflict with the needs of significant others. The opposite can also become true: a knee-jerk need to be over-aggressive about self-asserting. Many children of survivors describe having felt coersed to take care of the parents’ emotional needs, often at the cost of their own needs, and a frustration at having had no open communication, as well as a wish for greater emotional closeness with parent. The ‘old’ patterns of avoidance of conflict to protect the parents from upset can continue to prevent one from more open communication with one’s spouse. This behavior detracts from the chance for self-actualization as well as from potential closeness in the couple, and does not allow the other a fair chance to be their best as a partner.

A program for training in resilience based upon principles of Positive Psychology developed by Martin Seligman and his colleagues uses the acronym ABC to outline a road-map toward more conscious relationships:

Learn to differentiate between:

Activating event, Beliefs about it; Consequences of these thoughts

Learn your own explanatory styles and “thinking traps”:

   -Identify the thoughts that are triggered by activation events (stressors)

   – Identify reactions driven by these thoughts

   -Identify the impact of your reactions on others

WHEN WE FEEL TRIGGERED in the present, the most important first thing to do is to SLOW DOWN: Breath, take a moment before you react, remind yourself that your conscious, intentional self, does not wish to keep responding automatically and reactively. Focus on your intention to develop better relational competence, to have a better relationship, to respond better to your spouse/partner, and to respect their needs.

In order to resist falling into our “thinking traps” (reacting automatically and without awareness according to old patterns that might no longer serve us well), we need to identify the thought, the “iceberg in the deep” that was activated in us. For example, “I am always alone; nobody ever understands me nor will” or : “if I say what I want he/she will get terribly upset and so I have to give in to keep the peace” etc.

Once the thought/belief, related to our automatic response-set has been identified, it should be re-evaluated against the following questions

  • Is it still meaningful to me
  • Is it accurate/appropriate for this situation
  • Is it overly rigid
  • Is it useful, does it enhance my functioning, and that of others around me.

Recognizing one’s own relational adaptations to one’s family relationships is important, as it they are likely to show up in our current relationships. The couple relationship in midlife offers a new opportunity to achieve better resolutions for some old frustrations and a new level of closeness with others. It takes a willingness to be open, to commit the time and the effort, and to be willing to receive feedback, as part of the gifts that the other might be offering.

The second part of the meeting will be separately summarized.

                   Irit Felsen

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4 Responses to Summary of the Eighth Meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors in Boro Park

  1. Francine says:

    Very helpful and practical tools, thank you

  2. Devorah says:

    It probably would have taken me years of therapy to learn what I’ve learned in reading this. Thank you.

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