How do Traumatic Experiences Influence Children?

Raija-Leena Punamäki, PhD, is a psychologist and professor at the University of Tampere, Finland. Punamäki’s basic research question concerns how traumatic experiences—especially those related to family and maternal trauma—influence the parent-infant relationship, in addition to the infant’s emotional and cognitive development. In an interview with the Jacobs Foundation she explains how maternal prenatal exposure to weapons-related heavy metals influences child development.

What fascinates you about your research?

I have been working for a very long time on how war and traumatic experiences are reflected in family relationships and children’s development. Our current work mainly examines the first year of a human being’s life and the mother’s wellbeing during the transition to parenthood in extremely traumatic situations, especially during a war. Intuitively, you may assume that when a baby is born in the midst of shelling or bombing or in a refugee camp, his or her future prospects must be terrible. However, what is fascinating is the amount of human resilience displayed in spite of these circumstances. The developmental psychologists often say that the human being creates his or her first early environment. Thus, the first environment is not bad or good, but the first interaction between the mother and infant is always adaptive. This is especially the case during wartime.

What are your most important findings?

The parents and children with whom we have been working are war-affected. We don’t call them traumatized because it’s not self-evident that people are traumatized even if the environment is very traumatic. We have performed research and psychosocial interventions with preschool and school-age children, and it was the war-affected parents bringing up the question of newborns’ health. It seems that all mothers in war-torn areas are highly aware of the dangerous impact of toxic elements in modern weapons. This was the motivation for us to find out how common the exposure, the load, and the level of toxic heavy metals are in newborns and expectant mothers. We also examined how much the exposure affects the infant’s development and wellbeing during the first year of life.

Thus far, the findings are not very encouraging. We found that the toxic load of most heavy metals was higher in the mother’s body compared to the standard levels found in mothers in countries during peacetime. The mother’s toxic metal levels were related to her newborn’s heavy metal levels, which was measured using hair samples. The family’s war experiences were measured by self-reports and by taking pictures of the destruction of the houses to ensure that the information is reliable. Furthermore, the trauma of toxic metal exposure was impossible to separate from maternal psychological war trauma. In other words, the maternal prenatal war exposure affects the unborn child in multiple ways.

It is necessary to increase awareness of the influence of metal accumulation on reproductive health and knowledge about the mechanisms for how metals are passaging into infants in utero. We must understand the potential future impacts of these factors on maternal and infant health. Women are highly vulnerable to the toxic byproducts from modern weapons when facing home destruction, shelling, and bombing because they come into frequent contact with shelling debris in war-torn areas.

We have read in your papers that you do research on lullabies in war-torn areas. What exactly do lullabies tell you about child development?

Lullabies are one example of the resources that a culture can bring to the early relationships between parents and children. Hearing the parent’s voice, singing, and verbal communication may be especially important in life-threatening situations. Lullabies are soothing. Furthermore, mothers also sing to engage the infant and use folksongs as a socialization tool. We studied the maternal voice quality and emotional tone of the lullabies and found that a positive tone is associated with favorable infant development outcomes. The voice quality of the singer is a good indicator of the mother-infant interaction.

Where do you see practical implications for your work?

The main aim is to apply the latest knowledge of infant psychology to maternity care in war-afflicted areas. During our data collection in Gaza, Palestine, both mothers and fieldworkers wished for more psychosocial elements in maternity care during wartime situations. Together with Kurdish cooperation, we are implementing treatments to support the mother-infant interaction among those who are suffering and as a preventative measure for war-affected families.