What is Intergenerational Trauma?
Intergenerational trauma is when trauma reoccurs among generations and is repeatedly experienced by those related to the previous generation. Over generations, repeated exposure to trauma can genetically predispose these populations to traumatic reactivity.
How Does it Present?
Intergenerational trauma can present in a wide array of symptoms. Gayani DeSilva, MD, an adolescent psychiatrist, reports that intergenerational trauma symptoms may include:
- A sense of a shortened future
- Mistrust and aloofness
- High anxiety, depression
- Panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia
- A sensitive fight or flight response
- Issues with self-esteem and self-confidence.
Intergenerational trauma can also lead to a dysfunctional immune system, contributing to the development of autoimmune diseases. Dementia is also a higher risk for those who experience intergenerational trauma since trauma influences neurological functioning in the brain.
How Does Intergenerational Trauma Impact Families?
Intergenerational trauma impacts families when unhealthy behaviors are never recognized or stopped and continue to be passed down within each familial generation. Family environments that normalize various forms of abuse and do not allow for a healthy change to occur promote the pattern of instability and unhealthy relationships to be passed down over generations.
Normalization of toxic behaviors in families can also be due to a high amount of shame and secrecy, which discourages the possibility of outside help in breaking the cycle of trauma. Families that hide sexual, physical, and emotional abuse make victims feel isolated and at fault for the harm they endure within their family environment.
Victims of familial abuse may stay silent for fear of speaking out and of outside world perceptions, causing difficulty in healing from the abuse and sustaining the history of trauma in future generations.
While there is no “one size fits all” method of treating intergenerational trauma, stopping the cycle of trauma is the first step. Interventions such as psychotherapy are ideal for promoting healing and change in the unhealthy behaviors that sustain the cycle of trauma. A holistic approach to healing, in which individuals can find ways to cope, process, and accept the unfortunate circumstances they were dealt with, is often considered the best treatment method.
How to Stop the Transmission of Intergenerational Trauma?
Stopping the transmission of intergenerational trauma may first require an understanding for what intergenerational trauma is. Families that endure trauma may not realize what behaviors are toxic and have most likely normalized these behaviors because they were not given the tools to perceive an alternative reality in which healthy relationships exist.
Informing families of how trauma is transmitted across generations and what behaviors may be prevalent among families that endure intergenerational trauma may help reduce the shame that family members feel and encourage them to seek help.
Often, building resilience is an important factor in breaking the trauma cycle. Survivors of trauma who can recognize the abuse they’ve endured and change these toxic patterns may be the best hope for altering the chronic harmful behaviors that persist among generations.
In a study by Braga et al. (2012) on loving communication styles between generations, “When survivors of trauma openly tell their story and descendants can deal with their parents’ traumatic past, new lines of healing communication open between them.” Correcting poor communication patterns in families allows for lessening the shame that individuals of intergenerational trauma may feel and fostering the support of healthier relationships.
Frequently Ask Questions
Susceptibility to intergenerational trauma is dependent on the history of generations past within a certain population of people. For example, certain societal traumas such as war, racism, and poverty can lead to genetic changes that are passed down over generations, resulting in greater proneness to experiencing trauma. Similarly, families that suffer a history of trauma, such as abuse, alcoholism, abandonment are more likely to predispose their future familial members to intergenerational trauma.
While there is no diagnosis listed for intergenerational trauma in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the phenomenon is well understood by mental health professionals. By looking at the symptoms of individuals and their family members and considering the history of traumatic experiences that previous generations in the family experienced, intergenerational trauma can then be identified as a possible diagnosis.
An example of intergenerational trauma is when family members experience various mental health issues and/or toxic behaviors that can be seen as a pattern over each family generation. A certain personality disorder may repeatedly appear in individuals within the family or behaviors such as substance abuse, family violence, and/or sexual abuse that has reoccurred over generations.
The information on this page, or elsewhere on this site, is not intended to take the place of diagnosis, treatment or informed advice from a qualified mental health professional. You should not take or avoid any action without consultation with the latter.
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Dixon, E. (2021, July 3). Breaking the chains of generational trauma. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-flourishing-family/202107/breaking-the-chains-generational-trauma
Franco, F. (2020, April 21). How intergenerational trauma impacts families. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-intergenerational-trauma-impacts-families#1
Gillespie, C. (2020, October 27). What is generational trauma? Here’s how experts explain it.