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What is transgenerational trauma, and how does it affect our families?

January 5, 2022 - 9 min read

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What is transgenerational trauma? 

How are intergenerational and historical trauma different?

Who is affected by transgenerational trauma?

Symptoms of transgenerational trauma 

Trauma’s effects on children

Treatment for transgenerational trauma 

We know that our parent’s experiences make them who they are, and in turn, they make us who we are. But as it turns out, there's a biological and psychological component to how this happens. This phenomenon is known as transgenerational trauma, and it’s particularly common in certain communities. 

Without treatment, transgenerational trauma can continue to affect us, passing triggers from parent to child for generations. This article delves into exactly what intergenerational and historical trauma is, who is most likely to be affected, and why it’s so important to get treatment.

What is transgenerational trauma? 

Transgenerational trauma is when the experiences of parents affect the development of their children — and sometimes even their grandchildren. Also known as intergenerational trauma, it can show up biologically, socially, mentally, or emotionally. 

While researchers don't fully understand multigenerational trauma, it seems that it changes not only the way parents raise and relate to their children, but how certain genes are expressed in future generations. It's related to the biological study of epigenetics, which was first formalized as a field of research in the early 19th century. Epigenetics studies changes in the traits that are passed from one generation to the next that aren’t the result of changes in DNA.

In a notable study, mice were exposed to a certain smell, followed by an electric shock. These mice “passed down” the fear of the smell to their children and grandchildren, even when the next generation had never been exposed to it.

It makes sense that we’d transfer the experiences that we’ve had to our children in this way. The biological impulse to survive and protect our offspring is a strong one, and this type of transgenerational effect makes a certain kind of evolutionary sense. However, trouble arises, as always, when a useful biological impulse begins to interfere with our everyday lives — especially when you’re not aware of where it came from.

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How are intergenerational and historical trauma different?

Historical trauma isn't quite the same as transgenerational trauma — although it is related. Historical trauma results from the collective experience of a community or generation, such as genocide, economic depression, or war.

Often related to collective trauma, the affected community might internalize the trauma as part of the group identity. Acknowledging the depth and seriousness of the traumatic event makes it possible to pursue treatment, but comes with the risk of being unable to separate past from present experience.

In many cases, generational and historical trauma are related. For example, the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century went largely unrecognized by the Turkish government. As a result, studies indicate that Armenians tend to prefer care from Armenian mental health professionals

This is consistent with findings in the Black community, where people tend to prefer working with Black healthcare providers. Systemic racism and over-policing cause African-American families to raise their children differently, have different conversations, behave differently, and even dress differently due to the fear passed from generation to generation. 

Mental health care is dependent on trust and safety, and having to justify your trauma erodes the relationship. It can have the effect of drawing the community closer, but the legacy of trauma is the glue. Even if they've never experienced the shock, they've learned to be afraid of it.

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Who is affected by transgenerational trauma?

A person doesn't need to directly experience trauma in order to be affected by it generationally. Transgenerational trauma has been identified in the descendants of slaves, refugees, and children of Holocaust survivors. Anyone related to someone with the traumatic experience — whether in the same generation, immediate family, or subsequent generations — can experience symptoms.

Some tragedies and crimes that often result in intergenerational trauma include:

  • Violent crimes, like assault, harassment, rape, or sexual abuse
  • Acts of war or terrorism
  • Occupation, apartheid, or genocide
  • Economic instability, recession, depression, or extreme poverty
  • Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes 
  • Slavery
  • Domestic or childhood abuse

Symptoms of transgenerational trauma 

There is some evidence indicating that transgenerational trauma is a unique type of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. And in fact, the family members that experienced the event often display PTSD symptoms, which can affect how they handle stressors and relate as caregivers.

For a clinician to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, however, the person must have directly witnessed or experienced the trauma. In cases of intergenerational trauma, symptoms are a result of both genetics and socialization.

Symptoms of intergenerational trauma include:

  • Lack of trust 
  • Anger, frustration, or irritability
  • Insecurity and poor self-esteem
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Difficulty trusting others 
  • Unreasonable fear of injury or death
transgenerational-trauma-parent-holds-her-child

Trauma’s effects on children

As hard as we try to protect our children from painful or dangerous experiences, they sometimes happen. Sometimes, we do things that we think will benefit them, only to realize in hindsight that we were projecting our own triggers. It's important to realize that our past experiences inform who we are and — as a result — how we relate to our children, whether we like it or not.

That's why it's critical to do the Inner Work to be aware of our own triggers and how our experiences impact our parenting. Research has shown that the effects of trauma — whether in adolescents or in parents — include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression, mood disorders, and other symptoms of mental illness
  • Fearfulness or unwillingness to take risks
  • Hypervigilance
  • Separation anxiety
  • Unrealistic fears about dying or losing a loved one
  • Increased risk of substance abuse
  • Uncharacteristic behavior and acting out
  • Social avoidance and withdrawal

Surviving trauma doesn't make you a bad parent, or mean that you're destined to be one. Sometimes, the best thing that we can do for our children is show them that it's possible to overcome adversity. Getting treatment for the entire family can help stop the cycle of transgenerational trauma.

Treatment for transgenerational trauma 

Treatment of transgenerational trauma can be complex. It's a disorder that's only recently beginning to be understood, with biological, psychological, and cultural implications. Often, treatment involves both the family system and reinforcing the person’s feeling of safety. To do this, it's necessary to identify and unroot core beliefs that lead to feeling fearful

Commonly used treatments for intergenerational trauma include:

  • Intergenerational trauma treatment model
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Desensitization

Bottom line

More so than any other mental health condition, intergenerational trauma has a compounding, exponential effect on families and their well-being. Because of that, stopping the transgenerational transmission of trauma is critical. 

In order to do so, it takes awareness, courage, and support. Both the trauma survivors and their children benefit from family therapy and treatment. It can be difficult to face cultural trauma head-on, but it's a vital part of moving forward.

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Published January 5, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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