Prince Harry Opened Up About Inheriting ‘Genetic Pain’—Here’s What That Means, and How to Break the Cycle
Being able to understand and process past trauma is not only important for psychological healing, it’s also the key to understanding who we are on a deep level.
In his recent interview on the Armchair Expert podcast with Dax Shepard, Prince Harry opened up about something called “genetic pain” and how growing up in the royal family—and losing his mom at such a young age, and in such a traumatic way—has affected him over the years.
But what does genetic pain actually mean? To learn more about this term, which feels mysterious in a lot of ways, we spoke with psychiatrist Dr. Ziv Cohen, MD:
What is genetic pain and suffering?
According to Dr. Cohen, “genetic pain” is not actually a medical term.
“It does seem that Harry is referring to what is often called ‘intergenerational trauma,’” Dr. Cohen says. “However, even this term is not a precise technical definition. Intergenerational trauma can have two meanings. For example, in the children of Holocaust survivors, this term has been used to describe a phenomenon whereby the children receive some of their parents’ trauma by virtue of growing up with them and having a relationship with them. In this context, the term is referring to the fact that children have empathy for their parents, and so when their parents are suffering mentally the children can experience it vicariously.”
In other settings, “intergenerational trauma” has been used to describe more specifically parents inflicting on their children the same traumas that were inflicted on them. “Thus, the parents ‘identify with the abuser’ and victimize their own children,” explains Dr. Cohen. “This seems to be what Harry is referring to. He talks about his father’s well-known traumatic childhood, and argues that his father was inflicting similar trauma onto him. He expresses a desire to not inflict these traumas on his own children.”
How is genetic pain passed on through our parents?
As explained above, sometimes parents do not (or cannot) inflict on their children the same trauma they experienced. For example, Holocaust survivors obviously cannot inflict the experiences they had on their children. However, Holocaust survivors may spend years grieving the loss of their family and friends. The survivor may not be emotionally available for the child, or the child may empathize with the enormous loss of the parents and suffer a kind of vicarious traumatic grief.
In the second type of intergenerational trauma, parents may inflict their traumatic past onto their children. This can happen in overt ways, such as perpetuating the cycle of physical or sexual abuse. It can also happen in very subtle ways, such as being emotionally cold, strict, withdrawn, or abandoning.
“It appears that Harry is referring to a pattern of how royal parents behave towards their children,” says Dr. Cohen. “Essentially, as he tells it, the kings and queens are not so kind to their princes. Presumably, they lack empathy toward their children’s difficulties and predicaments in a way that Harry feels harmed him. He seems to be referring to Prince Charles’ relationship with his own father, Prince Philip, who has been portrayed as harsh and lacking in basic tenderness towards Prince Charles.”
How growing up in the royal family magnifies these issues
Wealth and fame can magnify mental health issues quite a bit, according to Dr. Cohen.
“Wealth and fame create enormous pressure on parents and on families,” he explains. “This can lead to unrealistic demands being placed on children. It can also lead to secret-keeping between parents and children and to alienation. In famous families, children do not have the benefits of privacy to work out their own identity and differentiate from their parents. This normal process can become traumatic, as attempts to develop one’s own identity are scrutinized by the press and may impact the image of parents. As a result, there is a lot of pressure on the whole family system to conform to an image and to meet expectations. This can become toxic for children.”
How to break the cycle
In mental health, one of the essential tools for growth is awareness. With increased psychological awareness, you have the opportunity to observe your own behavior. You may be shocked to find that, in perhaps subtle ways, you are recreating your own traumatic experiences in your relationship with your own children. For example, a parent who did not have anyone to pick him up from school as a child may find that for inexplicable reasons, he is always late to pick up his own son, leaving the son feeling sad and abandoned when it is time for school pickup.
“In psychotherapy, this parent may be able to have a breakthrough, and realize that many buried past hurts are impacting his relationship to his own children,” says Dr. Cohen. “This can create the opportunity for ‘redemption’ by consciously choosing not to repeat the cycle with one’s own children.”