The human mind can survive even very difficult experiences

No family or mother-infant dyad should ever have to face the horrors of war, but research also demonstrates the strengthening influence of traumatic experiences on the human mind. “It is somewhat controversial to talk about how war experiences can empower people and crystallise their life values, but according to studies, this can also happen,” Professor Raija-Leena Punamäki says.

The traumas experienced by a mother are not directly related to developmental disorders in her children.

The traumas experienced by expectant mothers and mothers with newborn infants do not directly affect their children’s psychological development. Mothers are burdened by traumatic experiences of war, but they attempt to regain their resilience to prevent negative impacts on their children.

“Mothers living in war zones are very concerned about how their traumatic experiences, such as the loss of family members and witnessing horrors, affect their children,” says Raija-Leena Punamäki, professor of psychology at the University of Tampere, Finland.

Researchers from Tampere have followed up on two groups of mother–infant dyads: 500 Palestinian mothers and children living in the Gaza Strip and 200 mother–child pairs who have fled the civil war in Syria to Kurdistan. In addition to Punamäki, Mervi Vänskä, Sanna Isosävi, Leila Mohammadi and Saija Kankaanpää are working with Palestinian and Kurdish colleagues on the Academy of Finland- and the Jacobs Foundation-funded study “Parenting, Infant Development and Mental Health in Conditions of War and Seeking Refuge”.

The results of the study are encouraging, because it is often thought that the mother’s trauma has an automatic negative impact on child development. Punamäki points out that supporting the mother’s psychological resources can prevent future developmental disorders in her children.

“We have followed up on mothers and children during the first year of life. Our results show that if we are able to support the mental health of mothers, encourage the healthy psychological processing of trauma, and improve the mother–infant relationship, maternal trauma does not affect the infant’s emotional and sensorimotor development,” Punamäki says.

The first year of life is an important period for human development because crucial emotional and stress regulation and sensorimotor skills develop at this time. During the same period, the mother–infant relationship also forms the basis for creating mutual attachment.

The research has focused on various cognitive-emotional and psychosocial processes that mothers use in order to recover from traumatic war experiences. For instance, there are ways of remembering horrifying events, causal explanations and emotions. Trauma disturbs these psychological processes so that the burdening experiences do not integrate into the mother’ life history or personality but remain a disruption in normal, everyday life.

“In addition, traumas can change the person’s worldview, in which case the whole world becomes threatening and other people are malicious and dangerous in the person’s mind. The victim feels that the trauma has destroyed and ‘tainted’ her life,” Punamäki says.

It is important for the mental well-being both of the mother and the child that the mother is able to process her experiences in a way that is mentally healthy. Psychosocial treatments tailored for mother–infant dyads in war zones are based on this principle.

Trauma may also result in something good. While Punamäki emphasises that no family or mother–infant dyad should ever have to face the horrors of war, traumatic experiences can also strengthen the human psyche.

“It is somewhat controversial to talk about how war experiences can empower people and crystallise their life values, but according to studies, this can also happen. Traumatic experiences can strengthen and invite mental growth, as the survivor understands better what is important in life and appreciates other people and their willingness to help. Some also experience a spiritual or religious awakening,” Punamäki explains.

The results showed that those mothers from war zones who had experienced mental growth could protect their infant’s emotional development from the impact of negative traumas.

“We talk about post-traumatic growth. The human mind tries to cope even in difficult circumstances. As soon as something goes wrong, the mind begins to produce good alternatives to protect mental integrity. In the conditions of war, these phenomena may even appear clearer than in safety,” Punamäki says.

In the treatment of victims of war trauma, it is important to note that the traumatic psychic experiences follow the people to safer conditions, such as when they seek refuge. Physical security is important, but people’s psychological, social and cultural needs should also be satisfied. A familiar living environment, friends, family and culture bring security, which helps people survive and even grow mentally when they face traumatic experiences.

“Our hypothesis is that families from war zones are physically safe in Finland but do not have cultural protection. On the other hand, people in the war zone are in physical danger, but they are protected by their culture,” Punamäki says.

Although trauma research at the University of Tampere focuses on the experiences of people living in and fleeing war zones, the study findings on mother–infant interaction in traumatic conditions will also be useful in the safer Finland.

“We often hear that the mother’s traumas or even stress have a direct bearing on the well-being of her child. However, studies have shown that multiple social, emotional and physiological processes explain the potential impacts. The expectant and caring mother’s mind is very porous: it is capable of utilising resources and helping the infant survive. The maternal mind is also open to positive influences, such as therapy and other support,” says Punamäki.

“It is also important that when serving mother–infant dyads with a refugee background, Finnish maternal care is aware of both the vulnerabilities and strengths possessed by the mother. Maternal care can support and encourage mothers so that they are empowered to protect their child’s development despite the war traumas,” Punamäki notes.

No family or mother-infant dyad should ever have to face the horrors of war, but research also demonstrates the strengthening influence of traumatic experiences on the human mind. “It is somewhat controversial to talk about how war experiences can empower people and crystallise their life values, but according to studies, this can also happen,” Professor Raija-Leena Punamäki says.

Text: Jaakko Kinnunen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall