Presenting at IARPP Conference in Sydney, Australia (May 25-28/2017)

On May 25-28, I will attend the conference of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis  (http://www.iarppsydney2017.com/) in Sydney, Australia. The conference aims to direct attention to topics which have not received sufficient attention in psychoanalytic writing. Within this frame of reference, I will present a talk about the effects of parental post-traumatic reactions and enactments in the emotional life of the family on the relationships between siblings in Holocaust survivors families. The abstract of the paper is provided below.

                 Irit Felsen

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Sibling Relationship and Parental Trauma: Effects of parental post-traumatic reactions on polarization of sibling differentiation and on the quality of the sibling relationships

Irit Felsen PhD (USA)

This is a clinical paper addressing observations of siblings who are adult children of Holocaust survivors. Particular problematic patterns of polarized sibling differentiation and de-identification, and negative quality of the sibling relationships, are discussed as related to intergenerational transmission of unsynthesized parental trauma.

This paper calls attention to the relationship between adult siblings, an aspect of family life that has been relatively neglected in psychoanalytic writing in comparison with the parent-child relationship. The relative neglect of the sibling relationship is striking, given demographics showing most children in the USA have at least one sibling, and in the face of growing evidence that siblings are central in the lives of individuals across the lifespan. Studies show that siblings serve as companions, confidants, and role models in childhood and adolescence, and as sources of support throughout adulthood. Moreover, the sibling relationship is the longest-lasting family relationship in people’s lives, longer than the relationship with parents, spouses and children. It is particularly important to understand the factors that influence the sibling relationships in families where parental emotional availability is compromised due to parental trauma.

Empirical literature on effects of parental trauma in the family has focused on childhood and adolescence, and not enough is known about what influences the relationships between adult siblings. More specifically, in the literature about families of Holocaust survivors, consisting by now of hundreds of studies, the sibling relationships has been almost disregarded. This paper aims to call attention to the potential influence of parental trauma-related relational enactments in the family on the sibling relationship in adulthood.

An additional goal of this presentation is to contribute to an expanded dialogue between related disciplines about the relationships between siblings. Relevant findings from empirical studies are integrated into a framework of current psychoanalytic concepts, with the goal of directing attention to further conceptual and empirical exploration of the sibling relationship as an important life-long attachment relationship, and to the impact of parental trauma on this relationship.

Severe rifts and relationship ruptures between adult siblings are often recounted by children of survivors of the Holocaust, and ties between the families of adult siblings are severed, leaving the third generation cut off from parts of their extended family, or entirely bereft of extended family. The annihilation of family ties is particularly tragic given the massive destruction of the survivors’ pre-war families and the small size of their post-war families.

It is proposed that unsynthesized affects and unresolved states of mind, which are related to the trauma of the Holocaust, are enacted in emotional-relational interactions in the families of trauma-survivor parents. Such enactments constitute dissociated communications and are implicated in a polarization of normative processes of sibling differentiation and de-identification. Concerns about needing to protect the survivor parent and fulfil the parents’ needs have been observed to be central psychological themes for children of Holocaust survivors in general. However, observed accentuated differentiation between siblings is associated with very different relational styles vis-a-vis the parents, reflecting different co-constructions of relational expectancies.

Observations suggest that perceived difference in their relational adaptations fuel intense mutual criticism and resentments among siblings in Holocaust families, contrary to some expectations from the literature that, seen from an evolutionary perspective, sibling differentiation aims at reducing competition for parental resources and decreasing conflict between siblings. This paper highlights the need to better understand how parental trauma influences the sibling relationship and how intergenerational transmission impacts the larger psycho-social context in groups that were exposed to massive annihilation.

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