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Childhood Neglect Could Leave Generational Imprint

generational Imprint

Key Takeaways

  • Maternal childhood trauma can alter the neurodevelopment of her offspring.
  • Providing a supportive and loving environment is important for all children.
  • Support is available to help heal childhood trauma.

A recent study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging is the first of its kind to show that maternal childhood trauma can impact certain aspects of offspring brain development regardless of circumstances during pregnancy.

The study found that babies born to mothers who had experienced neglect in childhood were more neurologically primed to detect threat than babies born to mothers who had little or no trauma in their lives.

The Study

The aforementioned study reviewed 48 Black women and their newborns as part of a larger study. Both public and private hospital participants were included to ensure socio-economic diversity was represented in the results.

Study participants were asked to report on current levels of stress, anxiety, or depression during pregnancy, as well as self-report on any childhood trauma. The authors state that approximately 45% of the women reported childhood trauma, consistent with the national average among Black women at the time of writing. Most participants reported emotional neglect or physical neglect, rather than abuse of a physical, sexual, or emotional nature.

Finally, infants were reviewed at approximately one month of age and underwent a resting-state functional MRI. This means the babies were asleep during the MRI so researchers could assess brain connectivity without the influence of external stimuli.

Lead author Dr. Cassandra Hendrix explains that resting-state functional connectivity is simply how different regions of the brain communicate with one another at rest.

What the Study Showed

Researchers found mothers who reported emotional neglect in childhood had infants with higher levels of connectivity between the amygdala and dACC regions and between the amygdala and vmPFC regions of the brain.

Of the Amygdala-dACC connection, Hendrix explains, “This could mean that the infants of emotionally neglected mothers are born with a neural predisposition that allows them to more readily detect threat in the environment.”

She adds that the amygdala-vmPFC connection “could suggest that the infants of emotionally neglected mothers are born with a neural predisposition that allows them to self-soothe more effectively.”

Dr. Cassandra Hendrix, PhD

The brains of these infants may be expecting and preparing for an environment in which they do not have an emotionally available caregiver.

— Dr. Cassandra Hendrix, PhD

“In other words, the brains of these infants may be expecting and preparing for an environment in which they do not have an emotionally available caregiver.” Hendrix summarizes.

What Does This Mean for Infants?


What impact the pre-programming of the brain could have on an infant is still unknown. “We will need to follow these infants over time to truly understand the impacts of stronger amygdala-dACC connectivity on child behavior,” says Hendrix.

However, what science does know is that the brain can rewire depending on life experiences.

“We...know the brain is incredibly sensitive to its environment early in life, and our results specifically highlight the importance of emotional support during childhood.” Hendrix explains, “Children expect and need emotional support from their parents. Giving children warm and sensitive parenting will go a long way in helping them succeed in life, regardless of the neural predispositions they are born with.”

Dr. Cassandra Hendrix, PhD

Giving children warm and sensitive parenting will go a long way in helping them succeed in life, regardless of the neural predispositions they are born with.

— Dr. Cassandra Hendrix, PhD

What This Means For You

According to the CDC, up to 60% of American adults have experienced some form of an adverse childhood event that may result in a sense of trauma, through no fault of their own.

This doesn't mean your child will be negatively affected by your own past trauma. It's important to talk to your pediatrician about any concerns you may have.

Coping With Past Trauma

“Traumas in life are not just limited to physical abuse or wartime situations, we now understand that emotional and psychological traumas linger just as much,” says Isaac Smith, LCSW. "Common traumas can include things like pervasive neglect, overly harsh and critical parental figures, enduring emotional and physical abuse, or the lonely despair that comes with having parents suffering from untreated drug and/or alcohol issues."

Isaac Smith, MAT, LCSW, NTP

Traumas in life are not just limited to physical abuse or wartime situations, we now understand that emotional and psychological traumas linger just as much.

— Isaac Smith, MAT, LCSW, NTP

Licensed family and marriage therapist Melinda R. Olsen explains that when a person who has experienced trauma as a child becomes a parent themselves, they often experience things that ‘trigger’ them based on their trauma.

Not understanding how to handle these triggers can make parenting all the more difficult. Many parents will revert to parenting patterns experienced in their own childhood, even if these were the cause of the trauma itself.

Smith agrees, saying "People who have suffered such situations may find themselves unconsciously mimicking the same distancing behaviors that their parents did, while others can overcorrect and, although well intended, become overly protective of their children."

Olsen explains that healing the traumas of childhood is an integral part of breaking the cycle of trauma.

“I know that it takes a willingness to become more aware of the ways that trauma has affected you and to take steps to actively heal,” says Olsen. “You can understand and work through triggers, and learn how to get what you needed when you were a child. You can heal from trauma! When you choose into that healing process, you begin to parent from a place of awareness and responsiveness (not reactivity).”

Melinda R. Olsen, LMFT

You can heal from trauma! When you choose into that healing process, you begin to parent from a place of awareness and responsiveness.

— Melinda R. Olsen, LMFT

Although we don't yet have the data to show healing your own childhood will physically change the neural imprints in your child, it is the first step in improving outcomes for your child.

Smith explains, "in order to not repeat the past, parents with their own trauma history would do best to seek out a safe place to process their trauma; to give themselves permission to seek support and find their own healing so as to reduce the likelihood of enacting their traumas in their children's lives."

Smith explains that traditional therapy is no longer the only way to heal past trauma. “Our mind can only do so much to contain itself without proper healing. That's why the right therapy intervention can lead to lasting relief.” He says, “What is most important is to allow the individual to process trauma in whatever way works for them.”

Numerous healing options that focus on past trauma are widely available. Smith advises that whatever form of therapy resonates with you, look for a therapist that uses the words "trauma informed therapy" in their literature to ensure they are adequately trained to help you.

Some new trauma therapy options include, but are not limited to modalities such as family therapy, trauma therapy, psychotherapy/counseling, dance/movement therapy, parent-child interaction play therapy, AEDP, EMDR, and hypnotherapy.

For parenting support services across a wide variety of specialties, the national parent helpline can help you find appropriate services in your state.

Increased awareness of generational trauma can open the doors to personal healing, limit the cycle of trauma, and enhance your relationship with your child.

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  1. Hendrix CL, Dilks DD, McKenna BG, Dunlop AL, Corwin EJ, Brennan PA. Maternal childhood adversity associates with frontoamygdala connectivity in neonatesBiological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. 2020. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2020.11.003

  2. Hendrix CL, Dilks DD, McKenna BG, Dunlop AL, Corwin EJ, Brennan PA. Maternal childhood adversity associates with frontoamygdala connectivity in neonates. Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. Published online November 21, 2020. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2020.11.003