Imaginary Solutions Require Imaginary Problems

If psychologists have a superpower, it’s a heightened ability to notice what’s missing from a conversation. (That, and we can read minds.) Sometimes what people don’t say is more important than the words they use.

The Washington Post recently published this article on intergenerational trauma. The author said many things about the topic, but she omitted something important: a definition. Nowhere in 460 words did she tell us what intergenerational trauma is.

She told us other things instead. She told us Oprah endorses the notion of intergenerational trauma, it’s “in the genes,” and “trauma is at the core of so many mental health problems.” I gather that intergenerational trauma is bad, but not even Oprah can tell us precisely what we’re talking about.

The general thesis of the article is reasonable enough: Disturbing experiences affect the way survivors raise their children.

That is not new information. Events shape parents, and parents shape their kids. That’s one of the oldest observations in all of clinical psychology. We know a lot about intergenerational transmission of behavior because researchers have measured it. For example, we know:

  • Daughters of parents who have insecure attachment styles are likely to develop their own insecure attachment style (Kilmann et al. 2009).
  • Alcohol use is a common factor in intergenerational transmission of violence, “such that alcohol-and-violence begets alcohol-and-violence” (Windle 1996).
  • Parental divorce is associated with increased risk of offspring divorce (Amato 1996).
  • Boys who enjoy good relationships with their biological fathers are likely to become loving, involved fathers to their own children (Brown 2018).

That’s just a sample. The list of specific observations goes on, and it’s quite old. Behaviorists have long noted that children learn to fear a thing after they observe a fearful reaction from their parents, and even Freud wrote about the transmission of taboos between generations (Hosein and Bulut 2021).

The author of the Post article has done what so many pop-psych writers do. She has replaced a well-established body of specific, limited observations with a slippery term that applies to just about everyone and every circumstance.

Your parents may not have been alcoholic or divorced. They may not have lost the family home by splitting queens at the blackjack table. But someone in your lineage had a very hard time of it… and apparently that makes you a victim of a vague malady called intergenerational trauma.

The author seems to mean well. Nevertheless, she speaks volumes in what she doesn’t say: real problems like depression and anxiety have indistinct origins and require easy, indirect solutions. As treatment for intergenerational trauma, the Post recommends such bland interventions as yoga, “awareness,” and political activism.

Yes, according to the article, you can cure your intergenerational trauma by becoming a political activist. That alone is enough to conclude that intergenerational trauma—at least in the Post’s sense of the term—is an imaginary problem.

(As an aside, the article’s recommendation toward political activism comes from American Psychological Association president Thelma Bryant. APA’s history suggests she would like you to lobby for their causes, not yours. It embarrasses me to no end that the leaders of my profession seem to view every client interaction as an opportunity to proselytize. My colleagues and I don’t do that.)

Neglecting to define a term may seem like a small thing. Maybe I’m ruminating over a triviality. But I think the Post article says a lot in what it omits. It’s implicitly repeating one of the most prominent messages in pop-psych discourse: happiness comes from applying minimal effort toward imaginary problems.

Considering the alternative—working hard to solve clearly defined problems—I can see the appeal.

PS. I can’t really read minds, but you already knew that.

Amato, P. 1996. “Explaining the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58: 628-640.

Brown, G.M., S.M. Kogan, and K. Jihyoung. 2018. “From Fathers to Sons: The Intergenerational Transmission of Parenting Behavior among African American Young Men.” Family Process 57: 165-180.

Hosein, A.M. and S. Bulut. 2021. “Reading Trauma as an Intergenerational Phenomenon.” Open Access Journal of Behavioral Science and Psychology: 4(2).

Kilmann, P. R., J. M. C. Vendemia, M. M. Parnell, and G. C. Urbaniak. 2009. “Parent Characteristics Linked with Daughters’ Attachment Styles.” Adolescence 44: 557-568.

Windle, M. 1996. “Effects of Parental Drinking on Adolescents.” Alcohol Health and Research World 20: 181-104.