What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

You’ve likely heard about and understand simple trauma, which describes a single, circumscribed traumatic event such as an assault or natural disaster. However, more complex types of trauma occur when a person experiences a series of repeated traumatic events or when new, unique traumatic incidents occur. Complex trauma early in life can damage multiple aspects of the child’s development, and often these signs of childhood trauma may involve entire families in incidents of violence, addiction, or poverty. 

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is the ongoing impact of traumatic events and situations that happened in prior generations, and continue to impact the current generation. Though it’s not always related to your genetic makeup, it is possible for trauma to be passed down through a multitude of factors, including epigenetic processes that increase vulnerability to various mental disorders, repeated patterns of abusive or neglectful behavior, poor parent-child relationships, negative beliefs about parenting, personality disorders, substance abuse, family violence, sexual abuse, and unhealthy behavior patterns and attitudes.

How is intergenerational trauma defined?

Intergenerational trauma (also referred to as trans- or multigenerational trauma) is defined as trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations. Intergenerational trauma may begin with a traumatic event affecting an individual, traumatic events affecting multiple family members, or collective trauma affecting a larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups/populations (historical trauma).

Intergenerational trauma was first identified among the children of Holocaust survivors, but recent research has identified intergenerational trauma among other groups such as indigenous populations in North America and Australia. In 1988, one study showed that children of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented in psychiatric referrals by 300%. The subjects were selected based on having at least one parent or grandparent who was a trauma survivor.

While the existence of intergenerational trauma is well documented in multiple studies across several cultures, the mechanisms of transmission of intergenerational trauma remain unclear.

Who is vulnerable to intergenerational trauma? 

Everyone is susceptible to generational trauma, but there are specific populations that are vulnerable due to their histories. Being systematically exploited, enduring repeated and continual abuse, racism, and poverty are all traumatic enough to cause genetic changes. So, for example, African Americans in the United States and around the world are particularly vulnerable. And, the families affected by catastrophes such as the 2004 tsunami in Asia will have traumatic reactivity for future generations to come. People in countries that have endured years, even decades, of war may also have generational trauma, she adds. Domestic violence, sexual assault or sexual abuse, and hate crimes are other acts that can result in generational trauma. 

What does intergenerational trauma look like in families?

There is no specific diagnosis of generational trauma, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals. But, the phenomena of intergenerational trauma is well accepted. 

We know trauma can manifest itself through stress, anxiety, fight or flight, and other heightened alert systems in our brain and bodies, but intergenerational trauma can also mask itself through learned beliefs, behaviors, and patterns that become engrained. This kind of wiring impacts personalities, relationships, parenting, communication, and views of the world. For instance, incest is often a traumatic experience which is repeated generation after generation. It becomes a horrid experience that is somehow accepted by the family because the family becomes desensitized and feels hopeless and powerless about the recurrence, and thus inadvertently enables the trauma to continue.

In some families, poor parenting and unsupportive family relationships are accepted as normal, allowing these negative patterns to continue causing damage in subsequent generations.

Many families hide sexual and physical abuse for generations, which in addition to emotional abuse, can create a highly toxic and damaging emotional environment that warps the reality of interactions within the family.

In families where there is a history of abuse, shame is a deeply ingrained common thread. When feelings of shame are internalized across generations, it has the ability to damage perceptions of self that can lead to self-blame and even self-harm. Shame can also encourage silence and avoidance of asking for help, leading to problems with finding closure or healing from early or ongoing trauma.

What is historical trauma?

While smaller scale traumas within families can result in intergenerational trauma, so can larger, more widespread trauma. This is commonly referred to as historical trauma. Historical trauma refers to traumatic experiences or events shared by a group of people within a society, or even by an entire community, ethnic, or national group. Historical trauma meets three criteria: widespread effects, collective suffering, and malicious intent –– such as the Holocaust or Great Depression. Historical Trauma Response (HTR), like many responses to simple trauma,  can manifest as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, violence, and difficulty in emotional regulation.

Can intergenerational trauma impact genetics?

There is growing research that parents may transmit inborn genetic vulnerabilities triggered by their own traumatic experience or via parenting styles that have been impacted by their trauma . A trauma survivor can face many challenges when he or she becomes a parent, including difficulty bonding to and creating healthy emotional attachments with their children. This is when one might want to look into what trauma bonding is.

Some veterans or survivors become numb in response to trauma and seek silence by self-isolating. They generally have a very low tolerance for stimulation of any kind, and are minimally involved in raising their children. Survivors who more closely identify as victims will typically fear and distrust the outside world, try to remain inconspicuous, and are frequently depressed and quarrelsome. Other trauma survivors can evolve into fighters focused on succeeding at all costs and retaining an armor of strength, making them intolerant of weakness or self-pity. Sometimes survivors can become characterized by their pursuit of socio-economic success and the ways in which they intentionally distance themselves both from their experience of trauma and from other survivors.

There is also evidence that maternal stress and trauma are associated with physical health consequences for both mother and child, including low birth weight, fetal growth, and preterm delivery. The effect of maternal stress and trauma translate into additional risks for the infant later in life, including hypertension, heart disease, Type II diabetes mellitus, and even cancer.

Epigenetics refers to the study of heritable changes in gene expression in response to behavioral and environmental factors that do not change the underlying DNA sequence. In other words, epigenetics is the study of inherited changes in phenotypic properties without a difference in the inherited genetic makeup. Recent studies demonstrate that traumatic events can induce genetic changes in the parents, which may then be transmitted to their children with adverse effects.

In 2005, a study conducted to better understand the relationship between the PTSD symptoms of women exposed to the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001, and their infant children’s cortisol levels found lower cortisol levels both in the mothers and their babies. Cortisol is a hormone released through the adrenal gland which helps regulate stress response. These findings speak to the importance of factoring epigenetic effects into our evolving understanding of how posttraumatic effects may be transmitted across generations.

What are intergenerational effects on children of trauma survivors?

Children experience and understand the world primarily through direct caregivers and are, therefore, profoundly affected by their parents’ modeling. Children tend to both mimic their parents’ behaviors and learn to navigate future relationships based on how they learned to relate to their parents. Resulting coping mechanisms may be forged out of efforts to avoid and/or “fix” a parent’s abusive behavior, anger, depression, neglect, or other problematic behaviors.

Mental health professionals are often unfamiliar with the history of those they seek to treat. Unrecognized and, therefore, unacknowledged traumatic events will go on to pose unique challenges for both client and clinician.

What is the treatment for intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma can be resolved if a holistic, intense intervention is put in place. This often involves individual therapy, though group/family therapy is sometimes a good option when the affects of the trauma are pervasive through the whole family.

Even just knowing they are not alone, and there may have been factors outside of their control might help a victim process the trauma. When we process things and understand them, we can then often find coping mechanisms. When we find coping mechanisms, we can heal, redefine ourselves. And reclaim a part of our life.

If the trauma or abuse is ongoing, it’s crucial to stop the cycle, which may require a huge amount of encouragement and support –– emotional, logistical, and financial. Support groups, financial support, housing support, health care, education, nutritional support, community resources, spiritual connections, and individual therapy will all need to be addressed for successful cessation of generational trauma.

We know that intergenerational trauma may be transmitted through parenting behaviors, changes in gene expression, and/or other pathways that we have yet to understand fully. These may be biological, social, psychological, and/or a mixture of all three. As we trace these modes of transmission, practitioners will be better able to match interventions to specific factors that either propagate traumatic effects across past, present and future generations or mitigate against their transmission. 

Different sources of intergenerational trauma will likely require different approaches. Innovative treatments for multigenerational trauma that borrow from indigenous cultures, acknowledge historical trauma, connect to group identity, and support survivors in finding meaning and purpose in their experience and that of their family and people are already providing practical tools for practitioners and point the way towards future progress.

If you’re looking for a therapist who specializes in intergenerational trauma, Advekit online therapy can help match you with a therapist today.