Epigenetics and Abandonment Issues

An adult adopted woman wrote – My biological daughter is 30, married with 1 child and she is struggling so much with similarities to abandonment issues that I had all my life. Her self esteem is very low, she does not feel she’s worthy of her husband, sees him as being the better person as a father and in their relationship a better husband than she is a wife. I see her trying to sabotage her relationship which reminds me of myself doing the same because I always thought people would leave me because I’m not good enough. I had to leave them first (I find this remark interesting because I am the child of 2 adoptees and I have always been the one to leave a romantic relationship) or make them leave me to prove my point to myself. She has no abandonment experiences. She’s always been loved and cherished by her father and I. I am thinking it’s epigenetics like you’ve talked about.

Our children and grandchildren are shaped by the genes they inherit from us, but new research is revealing that experiences of hardship or violence can leave their mark too. Unlike most inherited conditions, this was not caused by mutations to the genetic code itself. Instead, the researchers were investigating a much more obscure type of inheritance: how events in someone’s lifetime can change the way their DNA is expressed, and how that change can be passed on to the next generation.

This is the process of epigenetics, where the readability, or expression, of genes is modified without changing the DNA code itself. Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.

If these epigenetic changes acquired during life can indeed also be passed on to later generations, the implications would be huge. Your experiences during your lifetime – particularly traumatic ones – would have a very real impact on your family for generations to come. There are a growing number of studies that support the idea that the effects of trauma can reverberate down the generations through epigenetics.

A lot of epigenetic research requires a proof by elimination and looking at what may be the most consistent explanation. Many of the times when trauma is thought to have echoed down the generations via epigenetics in humans are linked to the darkest moments in the ancestor’s personal history. The idea that the effect of a traumatic experience might be passed from a parent to their offspring is still regarded as controversial by many people.

The consequences of passing down the effects of trauma are huge, even if they are subtly altered between generations. It would change the way we view how our lives in the context of our parents’ experience, influencing our physiology and even our mental health. Knowing that the consequences of our own actions and experiences now could affect the lives of our children – even long before they might be conceived – could put a very different spin on how we choose to live. Despite picking up these echoes of trauma down the generations, there is a big stumbling block with research into epigenetic inheritance: no one is sure how it happens. 

A recent paper has revealed strong evidence that RNA (rather than DNA) may play a role in how the effects of trauma can be inherited. Researchers examined how trauma early in life could be passed on by taking mouse pups away from their mothers right after birth. The model is quite unique. It mimics the effects on dislocated families, or the abuse, neglect and emotional damage that you sometimes see in people. Different lengths of RNA molecules were linked to different behavioral patterns: smaller RNA molecules were linked to showing signs of despair.

The science of epigenetic inheritance of the effects of trauma is still in its early stages. It is suggested that if humans inherit trauma in similar ways to the mammal experiments, the effect on our DNA could be undone using techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. That there is a malleability to the system. Healing the effects of trauma in our lifetimes could put a stop to it echoing further down the generations.

More about the research and results are described in this article – Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations?

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