Praxis Blog

Intergenerational Trauma: Healing the Past to Heal the Present

EMDR training, Laurel Parnell EMDR

Photo: Mark Brayne

Author: Mark Brayne, Parnell Institute Training Facilitator and Director of EMDR Focus.

Half-way through a demonstration session at an Attachment-Focused EMDR (AF-EMDR) workshop in London last year, it was becoming clear that my volunteer client and I were getting worryingly stuck.

We’d identified where George was being triggered in his present life – a row with his partner – and we’d bridged efficiently to him sitting alone and forlorn on the kitchen floor at the age of four or so, as his mother, her back turned, busied herself at the sink. 

As she had always done.

As an EMDR therapist reading this, you’ll know how familiar this kind of story is in our work with clients.

We had identified George’s emotion – despair – and where that was felt in his body – his heart. 

His opening NC had been a classic “I don’t exist” but also, interestingly, “I should have been born a girl”. 

Using knee taps rather than EMDR’s officially-preferred eye movements (I generally find that the younger the ego state with which we’re working, the more useful it is to work with eyes closed), George’s levels of emotional activation – his SUDs in the jargon of EMDR, his Subjective Units of Distress – had started to come down, as you’d expect. But on returning repeatedly to the kitchen target, things had stopped moving. 

There was more to this than just George’s kitchen experience. And with 25 or so workshop attendees looking on, we couldn’t just leave that little boy on the kitchen floor to be continued next session. We had to get this one concluded.

As an EMDR therapist steeped in the transpersonal and the psychodynamic, I knew of course that as well as being George’s own developmental trauma, this was mother’s stuff. 

But what I’d never previously considered doing, or seen anyone else do (not even Laurel Parnell!), was to take the structure of EMDR’s standard procedural steps and – using Melanie Klein’s understanding of internal objects – work not just with a client’s own subjective memories and experience, but directly on the internalised parent, inviting into our work the intergenerational narrative trauma inherited from the beyond-personal past.

After all, as Francine Shapiro has outlined in her manuals, what we’re addressing in EMDR is dysfunctional memory networks – with affect, somatic sensations and cognitions having their being and purpose in the past. To that extent, a childhood emotional part (EP in the language of Internal Family Systems) and a parental introject are in neurobiological terms the same thing. 

So, with agreement from George (and a nod to the group that we were going to try something rather unusual), I asked him to focus on the mother in the image of his target memory, and invite her in his imagination to sit down opposite me in that kitchen as if she and I were doing the therapy, and as if she were experiencing the knee taps.

With George as my interpreter, reporting back to me her words and responses, I asked his imagined mother to connect with what had been going on for her a moment ago as she worked at the sink with her little boy on the floor behind her.

She felt cut off, sad, and lonely, and she felt it in her heart. 

Continuing to use George’s imagination as our therapeutic tool, and bringing to bear Laurel Parnell’s Bridging Technique (a proactive version of EMDR’s standard Floatback) I invited his mother (let’s call her Mary) to drop back into her own childhood and to note the very first scene that came to mind.

Mary was four, evacuated from London during the Blitz in World War Two to a farm in the country where she was the only little girl, miserable and lonely, longing for a sister to play with. 

The scene was very clear in George’s mind, and as he reported back, I think we both had the same insight at the same moment – one of those exquisite I-Thou moments of EMDR therapy.

Even now, 50 years on as George struggled with the relationship with his wife, he was unconsciously carrying his mother’s grief at never having had the little-sister playmate she had longed for as a little girl, burdened throughout her life with the disappointment of George being a boy rather than the daughter who might have soothed that childhood emotional ache. 

From there, as our workshop attendees looked on smilingly, George and I had an easy, even delightful processing ride. 

“What does that little girl need?” I wondered, in true Parnellian fashion. 

Mary-through-George: “A sister of course, to play with.” 

“Would you like to imagine that?” 

“Oh, yes please.”

And we were off. 

Within a few sets, that piece of trans- or intergenerational trauma was healed, and little Mary-in-George’s-imagination was happy, playing, sorted. 

As a result,  in this demo session and still in George’s imagination, we could return to Mary-the-client in the kitchen, check how she was now doing with her little boy, and find that the previously dysfunctional maternal introject was now available, and able to soothe George’s little-boy ego state. 

Of course, with good-enough mothering this should have been what happened nearly half a century earlier, but that’s the joy of Laurel Parnell’s AF-EMDR. We really can rebuild the past, even the more ancient past, to change the future. 

In the year since that demo, I’ve developed this approach into more of a structured protocol, and together with other colleagues in the UK, we’re finding it to be astonishingly useful and effective. 

It’s an approach that complements Laurel’s core AF-EMDR, allowing therapy to work right up into the collective past, sometimes even right out into group and collective memory through the parental generational, back to grandparents and beyond. 

See also: How EMDR Can Work for You: Adapt to the Needs of your Client

There is much more  to this, including the role of genetics, culture, narrative and the transpersonal. 

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