Take a few moments to consider your entire family history, returning to the farthest generation you know existed. Envision what it may have been like to live through the experiences of your great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents throughout their lives. In envisioning this, it may become easier for you to understand your relatives better. There is a lot of history, hopefully, both good and bad, that has occurred before you throughout the generations of your family. Just because you were not present for traumatic events that your parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents went through does not mean they do not impact you. Intergenerational trauma is “the process by which parents with unresolved trauma transmit this to their children via specific interactional patterns, resulting in the effects of trauma being experienced without the original traumatic experience or event.” (Hesse & Main, 2000, cited in Isobel et al., 2017).
Intergenerational trauma is a process in which trauma responses replicate throughout generations due to the parent-child attachment relationship (Isobel et al., 2017). Traumatic events can significantly impact our thoughts, behaviors, and how we navigate the world and relationships. People learn to cope with trauma in many ways, and these coping responses often become generalized and utilized across other life situations. Past generations may not have had the resources or ability to seek to help them cope with their trauma in adaptive ways, resulting in maladaptive coping responses that then become passed down through generations. Trauma responses are adaptive and solely focus on what needs to be done to survive. In a traumatic situation, these responses are necessary. However, problems arise when these maladaptive coping methods become normalized amongst groups of people and across generations of families and continue to pass down even when no threat or trauma is present.
Attachment theory explains that babies are born with a need to bond with their caregivers, and how caregivers respond to their child has lasting impacts on how the child relates to others and the world. In a secure attachment, caregivers are responsive to their child’s needs and provide a sense of safety, allowing the child to feel safe to go out and explore the world. If a child does not develop a secure attachment, it puts them at risk of feeling anxious, fearful, or distrusting of the world and others. Trauma typically involves removing a sense of safety, so it only makes sense that if intergenerational trauma is present within a family, it would be more difficult for secure attachment to occur. If a parent does not feel safe or secure in the world or with others due to intergenerational trauma, it isn’t easy to transmit those feelings of safety to your child.
Intergenerational trauma may cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, including anxiety, difficulty regulating emotions, and disrupted sense of self and others. From a biological perspective, trauma can cause specific genes to activate to help the individual survive the traumatic situation. It includes genes that result in stress responses, including fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Then, these genes pass down to future generations. These genetic changes may be necessary for survival when the traumatic event is present but may be maladaptive to future generations who inherit them, as there is no longer a need to be on guard all of the time.
Examples of Intergenerational Trauma
Example 1: Ann is emotionally reactive, quick to anger, and escalates during stress or conflict. She grew up in a physically and verbally abusive household. Ann’s parents also grew up in physically abusive homes and modeled that behavior with their children. Ann learned to always be on guard as a kid due to this trauma, and even when she moved out of her parent’s house, this way of coping continued. Although Ann does not physically harm her children, she is quick to yell and anger because appropriate regulation of emotions was never modeled to her as a child. As a result, her children struggle with anger and have learned to become emotionally reactive to family conflict and outside of it. In this situation, behaviors were modeled and normalized within the family and replicated throughout generations. Additionally, a fighting response to stress seemed to have been activated and passed down through generations.
Example 2: A woman’s great-grandparents were Holocaust survivors. They learned to cope with the trauma they were experiencing by shutting down their emotions. At the time, this was necessary because they were in survival mode and needed to do whatever it took to survive. They never spoke about their trauma and continued to utilize this coping response of emotionally shutting down throughout life. They would punish their children when they displayed emotions, which taught them that feelings were wrong. They would behave in a very “cold” fashion towards their children and grandchildren and did not discuss anything that was emotionally difficult. It led to patterns of emotional distance, rigid boundaries, secret-keeping, and avoidance being transmitted throughout generations because family members never learned how to talk about difficult emotions or help others through their feelings.
Example 3: Marcus utilizes alcohol to cope with his emotions, as did his mother and grandparents. Marcus’ ancestors endured slavery and coped by shutting down their emotions and remaining hypervigilant to danger. After slavery was abolished, these stress responses continued to be passed down through generations as ancestors endured continued racism and discrimination. The discrimination in society resulted in Marcus’ family having lowered access to resources and lacking trust in society. The experiences that occurred throughout this family’s history contributed to increased PTSD and depression symptoms throughout generations, as well as lowered access and a lack of trust in the mental healthcare system. As a result, Marcus’ family turned to alcohol to numb their emotions and stress, and this way of coping has been modeled and passed down throughout the years.
How to Treat
Therapy is a beneficial way to help you through intergenerational trauma. Your therapist may use a Genogram, a diagram that shows the family history, relationships, and behavioral patterns throughout generations of a family, to help you understand and recognize the patterns present within your family. In therapy, you will identify and focus on breaking the old patterns transmitting the intergenerational trauma and work toward establishing the new, more adaptive practices you would like to create for yourself and future generations. You may work on emotion identification and regulation, recognition of defense mechanisms, and coping skills to help you manage your body’s stress responses. Modalities frequently utilized to treat PTSD may also be necessary, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Trauma Informed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or Internal Family Systems Therapy. It is essential to remember that no matter how strong or long-standing intergenerational trauma patterns are, you can stop these patterns from continuing. You can be the one to create change and model a new, healthier way of functioning for future generations of your family.
Isobel, S., Goodyear, M., Furness, T., & Foster, K. (2019). Preventing intergenerational trauma transmission: A critical interpretive synthesis. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 28, pp. 1100 – 1113. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.14735