Intergenerational trauma is a term used to describe the transmission of traumatic or oppressive effects of a historical event. As more and more people become aware of the concept, many may wonder if this is something they are experiencing.
Intergenerational Trauma Explained
Simply put, intergenerational trauma is the trauma that is passed from trauma survivors to their descendants. It is also known as transgenerational trauma and was first recognised in the children of Holocaust survivors.
Intergenerational trauma can be passed down from parent to child if the parent experienced childhood abuse or suffered many adverse childhood experiences. Their trauma could then influence their parenting style in a way which traumatises their children. This could take the form of shouting – a parent may shout at their child because their parents shouted at them – or more serious forms of abuse. The cycle of intergenerational trauma could then repeat itself indefinitely.
Other examples of intergenerational trauma can include:
- Refusing to talk about feelings or appearing emotionally numb.
- Being extremely guarded of children and other family members, even though there is no danger.
- Refusing to respect privacy or boundaries.
There are many more ways that intergenerational trauma can manifest in family life. Depending on the type of trauma, the personality of family members, and environmental factors such as socioeconomic background, trauma can be felt differently across the generations.
The roots of generational trauma are varied. Evidence shows that systemic oppression causes higher rates of intergenerational trauma, for example, in the descendants of refugees and genocide survivors.
Historical trauma is considered a type of intergenerational trauma. It refers to a traumatic event that impacts a larger group of people and is defined by three things:
- The suffering of those who experienced the trauma
- The malicious intent of those who caused the trauma
- The widespread nature of the trauma
This form of intergenerational trauma was coined when Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart was working with Lakota communities, and she saw the long-standing effects of the American Indian boarding schools. These schools were meant to assimilate Native Americans into European culture and attempted to strip Native American children of their cultural identity. They were forbidden to speak their native language and their long hair was cut off.
As a result of the trauma suffered, the descendants of boarding school survivors may face various problems passed down through the generations, such as higher rates of substance abuse, physical abuse and violence that perpetuate the cycle of intergenerational trauma all over again.
Genetics and Trauma
There is a strong connection between genetics and trauma. Trauma survivors can have several different reactions when experiencing a traumatic event – fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop, to name a few. These responses are helped along by genetics and DNA and are then passed onto offspring to prepare them for any potential traumatic events they may face.
This field is known as epigenetics. Scientists in this field have found that although the DNA itself is not changed by trauma, it does alter which genes activate in threatening situations.
Therefore, intergenerational trauma is coded into genetics as well as through the actions of parents. The children of those who have experienced traumatic events are then primed to anticipate danger, which can have a stressful toll on their mental and physical health.
The Impact of Intergenerational Trauma
Trauma impacts all parts of life, and symptoms can range from relatively mild to debilitating. Symptoms can include:
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Ruminating on negative thoughts
- Feeling numb or disconnected from the body
- Being irritable or angry when confronted with a trigger
Intergenerational trauma can also be linked with many health conditions due to epigenetic changes, which can cause conditions such as:
- Heart disease
Healing Intergenerational Trauma
Despite the longevity of intergenerational trauma, it can be healed, and there is treatment available.
Here are some steps that you can take to begin healing intergenerational trauma:
- Reconnect to your roots – intergenerational trauma can be caused by the severing of cultural roots, as experienced by Native Americans in boarding schools. Finding ways to reconnect to your culture can help start the healing process and can be done via many different mediums, including dance, storytelling, art and spirituality.
- Build resilience – resilience can help people deal with adversity better and maintain a more positive outlook on life. Strategies to improve your resilience can include developing strong relationships with loved ones, setting realistic goals, and taking action when problems arise.
- Take care of yourself – self-care can help boost mental well-being and improve our physical health. Ensure that you are getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly.
- Seek therapy – working with a therapist can have immense benefits in healing intergenerational trauma. Therapists can help you get to the core of intergenerational trauma, reduce trauma symptoms, and provide helpful ways to cope with any symptoms that persist. Many forms of therapy can be used, including music therapy and art therapy.
Healing intergenerational trauma prevents it from being passed on to future generations and can show those still struggling that there is a healthy, positive way to cope.
Intergenerational trauma is a type of trauma that can be passed down through families after people experience traumatic events. This can be any form of trauma, from personal trauma to collective trauma such as racial discrimination. Intergenerational trauma can manifest in many different ways, all of which can be harmful to families and family members.
Healing from intergenerational trauma is possible. Therapy can help people identify the source of the trauma and provide ways to begin the healing process.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with intergenerational trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Sangalang CC, Vang C. Intergenerational trauma in refugee families: a systematic review. J Immigrant Minority Health. 2017;19(3):745-754.
 Gone, J. P.; Hartmann, W. E.; Pomerville, A.; Wendt, D. C.; Klem, S. H.; Burrage, R. L. (2019). “The Impact of Historical Trauma on Health Outcomes for Indigenous Populations in the USA and Canada: A Systematic Review”. The American Psychologist. 74 (1): 20–35. doi:10.1037/amp0000338. PMID 30652897. S2CID 58570971.
 Ryan J, Chaudieu I, Ancelin ML, Saffery R. Biological underpinnings of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder: focusing on genetics and epigenetics. Epigenomics. 2016;8(11):1553-1569.