Intergenerational trauma—sometimes called transgenerational trauma—is a term that is used to describe the impact of a traumatic experience, not only on one generation, but on subsequent generations after the event. Intergenerational trauma is a term that is often not talked about, resulting in a lasting impact on later generations.
The intergenerational transmission of trauma can come about due to unawareness of the impact, but also from the stigma that may be related to getting treatment for mental health concerns. Stigmas related to transgenerational trauma many times come from the myths that are associated with seeking out mental health support. The main way to help break the stigma related to intergenerational trauma is through knowledge and awareness, focusing on strategies to support families during these challenging situations.
Much of the research that has been done on this topic has come out of studies that have looked at children of Holocaust survivors.1 However, more research and discussions must be had about intergenerational trauma and the impact that it can have on families if not prevented or addressed.
What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
Trauma leaves a lasting impact on a person. It can shape their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but it can also affect their parenting, communication, and connection with their children. With intergenerational trauma, a child is exposed indirectly to the trauma of a parent, which can become a generational cycle. In some cases, the parent, unintentionally, will place the child in similar situations that led to their trauma.
Who Does Intergenerational Trauma Affect?
No family or individual is immune to traumatic experiences that can have a lasting impact on the person as well as their family members. When thinking about trauma and its impact, many people think about war veterans. However, 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetime.11
Traumatic events that may lead to intergenerational trauma include parental incarceration, divorce, alcohol use disorder, domestic violence, child abuse (e.g. sexual, physical, or emotional), or natural disasters.
When discussing intergenerational trauma, one must also think about historical events causing collective trauma that may have a lasting impact on generations to come, such as the Holocaust, refugee camps, and slavery, all of which have had enduring effects on generations of people worldwide.
Transgenerational Trauma & Genocide
According to the Administration for Children and Families, historical trauma, such as the Holocaust and slavery, is intergenerational trauma experienced by a cultural group with a history of suffering from systemic oppression, more specifically known as genocide.
Other genocides that must be considered when thinking about historical trauma include (but are not limited to) the Rwandan genocide, the Bosnian genocide, and Darfur genocide. When historical trauma is left unaddressed, it can have a cumulative impact that reverberates across generations in the form of psychological, emotional, and even physical trauma.2
How Transgenerational Trauma Is Passed On
Traumatic experiences can be transmitted physiologically, environmentally, and socially.3 Adult children with parents diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often describe damaged, preoccupied parents who were emotionally not available when needed. There are various ways these parents can pass down their symptoms to their children.4
The following symptoms experienced by parents may impact their children:4
- Parents may relive traumatic events, become emotionally detached and numb, or even experience dissociative episodes in which they become detached from reality. These symptoms can impede the child’s ability to develop a reasonable sense of safety and predictability in the world.
- Parents affected by trauma may be less able to respond optimally during usual developmental crises and in result, are unable to help their child comprehend the world in a healthy manner.
- Parents suffering from PTSD may also have difficulty modeling a healthy sense of independence, appropriate self-soothing mechanisms and emotional regulation, and maintaining a balanced perspective when life challenges arise.
- Parents may model catastrophic or inappropriately numbed and emotionally disconnected responses.e.
Symptoms of Intergenerational Trauma
Individuals have varying reactions to traumatic events and oftentimes do not realize the impact of the event. Symptoms of intergenerational trauma may vary depending on the events that families have experienced and can be physical, emotional, or behavioral. Family members who have suffered traumatic events may have symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Therefore, it is imperative for families to be familiar with these symptoms.
Symptoms of intergenerational trauma may be mistaken for other disorders, and can include denial, depersonalization, isolation, memory loss, nightmares, psychic numbing, hypervigilance, substance abuse, identification with death, and unresolved grief.3
Other commons symptoms of intergenerational trauma may include but are not limited to:
- Lack of trust of others
- Inability to connect with others
Millions of children in a year are exposed to traumatic events that impact not only them but generations to come. The exposure to transgenerational trauma can have a lifelong effect on children. For school age children it is important to know that many signs and symptoms present when children are in the academic setting. Undealt-with trauma can manifest itself by children avoiding school, difficulty focusing, dropping out of school, decrease in grades and test scores, and behavioral challenges such as suspensions and expulsions.
Intergenerational Trauma Examples
Intergenerational trauma can show up in a variety of situations—here are a few examples:
- A man is traumatized by the sudden and tragic death of his parents. He is directly impacted and begins to dramatically withdraw from his family members before becoming violent and aggressive. His young son is indirectly impacted by this trauma and directly impacted by the trauma of his father physically abusing him and his mother.
- A woman was sexually abused by her uncle as a child. Although she can see the negative impact this had on her life, she allows her daughter to spend time with this same man. Their interaction leads to more sexual abuse with another generation experiencing the same trauma. This time, though, the daughter has reason to be angry with mother for being placed in that situation.
- A woman was raped as a teen and became pregnant as a result. To manage the pain of raising a child of sexual assault, she began to drink alcohol and use drugs. Due to the mother’s substance use, the child was exposed to poverty, neglect, and various forms of abuse.
Healing Intergenerational Trauma
Intergenerational trauma took generations to form, so no one should expect to reverse this trend immediately. Though the road is difficult, there are practical steps someone can use to heal from intergenerational trauma:
- Share the secret: Secrets, lies, and deception are central to intergenerational trauma. To begin healing, people need to know the extent of past issues.
- Identify and discuss the impact: Once the secrets are shared, people can begin to see the impact of the trauma. Anger, sadness, anxiety, and substance use could all stem from trauma.
- Work as a team: With intergenerational trauma, it is challenging to know who is a victim and who is a perpetrator. Rather than pointing fingers, work as one unit with the goal of improving the family now and for future generations.
- Avoid past mistakes: Whatever thoughts, feelings, and behaviors were born from trauma must be ended. The family needs to find ways to stop adding new trauma by changing their habits.
- Bring in the professionals: Trauma is always impactful, but intergenerational trauma takes a heavy toll that requires professional treatment to resolve.
Treatment for Intergenerational Trauma
Treatment to address traumatic events that impact individuals and generations to come is key and pertinent to the healing process for those impacted and for future generations. However, when seeking treatment, it is important for mental health professionals to describe the context and help clients with understanding the definitions of terms as they relate to intergenerational trauma.5
There are various methods of treatment pertaining to intergenerational trauma, all of which should be considered from a culturally responsive perspective when providing services, including developing a safe and trusting relationship with the mental health provider. Both individual counseling and family therapy can be helpful for healing from trauma.
Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)
NET is a therapeutic model that focuses on treating clients who have experienced complex or multiple traumatic experiences.6 The method is often used in group or community settings to assist clients with challenges due to complex trauma. These various traumatic experiences include but are not limited to people who have experienced political or cultural trauma, such as war or genocide in one’s country or becoming a refugee.6
One goal of NET is to help clients reframe the traumatic experience in a manner that allows them to contextualize the experience(s), decreasing the overarching power that the traumatic experiences have had in the clients’ lives. This therapeutic modality focuses on clients recounting their life events, but in a way that also integrates some positive events that the client has experienced as well. Normally, this therapy can be completed in 10 or more sessions.7
The Intergenerational Trauma Treatment Model (ITTM)
ITTM focuses on complex trauma specifically for children and their parents/caregivers.8 This model is research-driven and looks at various areas related to trauma. The ITTM is based on over 20 years of original research, development, and clinical practice and is informed by trauma theory, attachment theory, and advanced cognitive behavioral techniques.
ITTM is designed to treat the unresolved trauma impact from childhood in parents/caregivers prior to engaging the child in treatment. The parent/caregiver can include any adult with long-term involvement with the child. In effect, ITTM treats two generations at once, increasing the functioning of both child and parent.8
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)
TF-CBT is an evidence-based treatment modality for children and adolescents who have symptoms related to trauma.9 This method of treatment combines psychoeducation and cognitive techniques to teach children and adolescents how to express themselves, learn cognitive coping skills to deal with stressors, develop relaxation techniques, create and process trauma narratives, and manage behaviors that could be detrimental to their overall mental health.10 The timeline for this treatment typically varies from 8-25 sessions.9
All treatment needs to consider the cultural considerations of the family impacted by treatment. By employing aspects of cultural competence and cultural humility, a professional can become better able to help those affected.
How to Get Help for Intergenerational Trauma
When addressing trauma and traumatic experiences that have impacted generations, it is vital to seek professional mental health support. The first step to consider is to visit your physician to assess any physical symptoms to ensure that what you are experiencing is not a physical or medical illness.
Once physical causes of the symptoms are addressed, you should seek out mental health services to support your family throughout the process. When looking for a mental health provider for treatment of symptoms that may be related to traumatic events, take your time and seek out someone who has the expertise in trauma-informed care that specializes in intergenerational trauma with a family focus. You may research mental health providers with this specialty by using an online therapist directory, getting a list of providers from your insurance company, getting a referral from your family doctor, and/or getting a recommendation from a colleague, friend, or family member.
The following are essential considerations when searching for a mental health professional to support you and your family:
- Check to see if the therapist is accepting new patients.
- Read to ensure that the provider focuses on specialty areas that are specific to you and your family’s needs.
- Ensure that they understand trauma and trauma-informed practices when working with families.
- Ask if the therapist accepts your insurance plan or offers affordable cash payment options.
How to Stop Intergenerational Trauma From Happening
In order for families to heal, authentic conversations with support are vital. Moving forward in a way that is healthy for families is important to stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
Questions to consider when moving forward throughout the process are:1
- Who is a part of your family’s support system when dealing with stressors or life changes?
- What strategies do your family use to heal after a challenging situation?
- What does being healthy physically and emotionally mean for your family?
- What stories or themes did you hear about your family growing up?
- How have these stories or themes impacted you and your family?
For Further Reading
Further resources with helpful information regarding trauma include:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of Adverse Childhood Experiences
- International Center for Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma
- International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
- SAMHSA’s National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- The American Psychiatric Association
- The National Association of Mental Illness