Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Psychic Trauma

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 10, 2014

Blame the parents, a simplistic way to think about adult psychopathology. On the one hand, we can all agree that childhood sets the stage for adulthood in which relationships are formed, leading to happiness and fulfillment, and/or pain and suffering. That relationships in childhood, that is, those with the caretakers, create a paradigm for how relationships should be, create an imprint which can be growth-promoting and/or psychologically destructive is the premise behind the “blame the parents” approach. Some psychoanalysts reframe the “blame the parents” with the language of “psychic trauma”. Clearly, on a broader level, there are multiple layers of psychic functioning and “psychic trauma” only affects one layer. Siphoning out this layer to teach about “mental schemas” does not mean that there are not biological factors which impact resilience such as IQ and temperament.


Brett, fifty-two, comes to mind. He is lonely, unemployed and burdened by the care of his disabled brother. He states that he cannot form relationships with women because he is “sure” they are going to hurt him, so what is the point? Where does this certainty come from? I wonder. It stands to reason that Brett’s saying “sure” means that historically speaking, women have hurt him terribly and he, in his mind, was not able to mend that wound. Does this mean that his mother did not respond to him, in the way that he needed to be responded to, and hence now, in middle age he is lonely and depressed? Maybe, but that is not the whole story. It does not mean that Brett’s mother is “bad” or unempathic, but it could mean that the fit between mother and child was poor, meaning that Brett’s mother did not tune into his needs in a “good enough” way, as per Winnicott. Maybe, at a tender age, Brett had a relationship with a woman that “traumatized him for life,” as some people might say, but in fact, if every relationship brings up prior relationships, then we can assume that “traumatized for life” implies a lack of resiliency, making me as a therapist, think about his early relationships.

So, can we “blame the parents” and forgive them at the same time? This is the option that each patient has, that understanding one’s needs, and perhaps the lack of attention to those needs, does not necessarily make the patient angry at his caretaker, but often, the patient becomes compassionate for how hard it is to take care of a child, who has needs that are demanding a deep and wide skill set of compassion, empathy and patience. In essence, psychic trauma is inevitable in childhood. The issue is how that trauma becomes integrated into the mental state of the adult. Does the trauma inhibit the ability to work and love, as Freud would ask, or does the trauma deepen one’s commitment to work and love in a meaningful way?

6 Responses to “Psychic Trauma”

  1. Eleanor said

    First, we all are aware that there are no perfect parents…never have been, never will be. With that said it’s obvious that some parents are far far less perfect than others, spanning the continuum from “good enough” going all the way back to brutal and abusive or worse. In my years in psychoanalysis, my parents were never, ever, “blamed”. The approach was to “understand” my past, my parents…the good and not so good, their humanness, their mistakes…but mostly to “understand” all the gray areas in childhood dynamics and avoid seeing the many layers of contradictory or ambivilent feelings in black and white….My treatment approach helped me see my parents as caring, loving but imperfect who made mistakes…I was able to see them as human beings with their own set of struggles left over from their early past. The idea of blame, to me, would have been toxic.

  2. Shelly said

    Thank you, Shirah, for this helpful post. I thought it was time you clarified why everything always came back to “blaming the parents.” It made me wonder if parents could ever be good enough and if there ever could be perfect parents in a therapist’s eyes. I doubted my own parenting skills and wondered if I too would be blamed for everything if my kids ended up on the therapist’s couch (answer: yes, I will). Apparently everyone, even “perfect parents” can make mistakes and no matter what they do has some effect on their offspring. That is comforting.

  3. Ashana M said

    We blame the parents, perhaps, but deep trauma is the fault of everyone. Parents don’t raise children entirely alone, they don’t neglect their children without us looking the other way, and they don’t abuse their children without our consent. Individuals are mistreated in our society because we allow it. Children don’t develop resilience because we don’t step in to fill a few of the gaps imperfect parents leave behind. It isn’t the fault of parents how children turn out. It is all of our faults.

    • Shelly said

      Ashana, who is the “us” that you write about? Society? We don’t look the other way. We don’t ignore the signs. We are not passive people who let abuse go on, if we know about it. It’s just that it’s hidden from us and we simply don’t know.

      • I take your point, Ashana, that so many of us want to believe that parents nurture their children in positive ways, that we are often shocked by child abuse, and we should not be. We need to understand that most parents try to help their children grow and develop, but some parents are overtly destructive. There is a collective denial that parents can and do hurt their children significantly and so we are reluctant to intervene. There are laws in the US that create mandatory reporting, but laws only go so far.At the same time, I agree with you Shelly that most of the time it is not our denial that gets in the way, but rather our ignorance of not knowing what really happens when the door closes. Thanks.

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