Intergenerational Trauma: What Is It? Thumbnail

Trauma that crosses generations is known as intergenerational trauma. Find out what it is, what causes it, and how it can be treated .

Traumatic events can cause immediate devastation, but the effects of trauma extend far beyond that. The emotional and physical impacts of trauma can persist for weeks, months, or even years.

While trauma can lead to anxiety, insomnia, or depression, it can also affect the people around you. This is known as intergenerational trauma. The effects of intergenerational trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next in families or larger groups of cultural, racial, or ethnic communities.

Passed-down trauma can affect multiple areas of a person's life. It can affect relationships with family members, cause low self-esteem, alter behaviors, change parenting styles, and impact a person's mental and physical well-being.

With professional help and a commitment to breaking intergenerational trauma cycles, individuals and families can repair their relationships, reduce their shame, and gain a deeper sense of meaning in their lives.

What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma occurs when emotional, physical, or social distress following a traumatic event is passed down from one generation to the next. In some cases, intergenerational trauma begins with a single person's traumatic experience. Other times, it stems from traumatic events affecting a larger group.

Also called generational trauma or multigenerational trauma, intergenerational trauma can be passed down when a person experiences childhood abuse or neglect. It is often considered historical trauma when it occurs within a specific cultural, racial, or ethnic group. Examples of historical trauma include the Holocaust and the slavery of African Americans.

Passed-down trauma can even result from a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which had devastating effects on families for years after the event.

Symptoms Of Transgenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma can affect your health in a variety of ways. While effects can vary from generation to generation, common symptoms include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Feeling vulnerable or helpless
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Inability to control aggressive feelings
  • Sensitivity to stress
  • Loss of cultural identity (a sense of belonging to a group)

Though intergenerational trauma can cause a variety of negative effects, many people show no obvious signs of trauma experienced by previous generations. Behaviors, thought patterns, and family narratives become normalized and we are often unaware of the effect they have on us throughout life.

Who Is Affected By Transgenerational Trauma?

Traumatic experiences can affect anyone and have a profound impact on the individual and their family. Distressing events that can lead to intergenerational trauma include:

  • Divorce
  • Parental imprisonment
  • Alcohol or drug Abuse
  • Poverty
  • Domestic abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Murder
  • Sexual assault
  • Childhood abuse or neglect

Studies on intergenerational trauma have also examined descendants of people who have suffered historical trauma. These events include:

  • Systemic racism, slavery, or segregation experienced by African Americans
  • Holocaust survivors who lived in concentration camps
  • Native Americans who suffered colonial genocides or had their children taken and placed in boarding schools by the federal government
  • Japanese Americans detained in World War II detention camps
  • Veterans of the Vietnam War

What Causes Intergenerational Trauma?

While the exact causes of intergenerational trauma are unclear, some experts believe trauma can affect a person's behavior, communication styles, belief systems, and attitudes in ways that influence future generations.

For example, if a parent experiences a traumatic event, they may become numb or emotionally detached. As a result, their children may experience a sense of insecurity and unpredictability that continues into adulthood.

Parents affected by trauma may also have difficulty coping with stressful events, resulting in intense emotional reactions. Therefore, their child may adopt similar coping mechanisms.

Epigenetic changes may also play a role, according to researchers. It is believed that environmental changes can affect how your genes function, and these changes can be passed onto future generations.

While there are a number of ways that trauma can be passed, the following are common:

  • Changes in DNA
  • During pregnancy
  • Memories
  • Cultural conditioning
  • Cultural behaviors
  • Continual emotional trauma
  • Family narratives
  • Acceptance of hostility, oppression, and inhumanity toward others
  • Parents not dealing with their trauma

How Is Intergenerational Trauma Treated?

Healing traumas that have affected individuals and future generations often require treatment. Talking to a mental health professional is the first step toward healing. Mental health professionals specialized in trauma can help you:

  • Identify traumas that have occurred in your family
  • Manage stress, sadness, anger, pain, or guilt related to your family trauma
  • Examine present-day traumas, such as racism that may be connected to your original trauma
  • Develop coping techniques
  • Recognize your triggers and how to respond to them
  • Replace destructive thought and behavior patterns with healthy ones
  • Work with family members to strengthen relationships

Intergenerational trauma can be treated in a variety of ways. Healing from trauma can be achieved through both individual counseling and family therapy. Common techniques for treating intergenerational trauma include:

Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)

Narrative exposure therapy is a form of psychotherapy often used for individuals who have experienced multiple or complex traumas. This method can be conducted individually or in a group setting. With this technique, people can better understand their traumatic experiences and lessen their emotional responses.

During therapy sessions, the patient is asked to narrate the traumatic events and the emotions experienced in detail. This strategy helps individuals link emotions from trauma to a specific time and place, separating them from everyday life.

The Intergenerational Trauma Treatment Model (ITTM)

The intergenerational trauma treatment model (ITTM) focuses on treating unresolved trauma in children and their parents or caregivers. This technique addresses attachment and emotional issues between a child and their caregiver. It also facilitates the safe expression and processing of trauma. Over time, ITTM improves the functioning of the caregiver-child relationship.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is an effective treatment for children and adolescents affected by trauma, as well as their parents or caregivers. The technique helps individuals identify and modify unhealthy thinking patterns and behaviors. By challenging intrusive thoughts and emotions, people can change their thinking to feel better.

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy can also be used to address problems within a family. When trauma has been passed down to the child, parents and caregivers will learn communication, stress management, and parenting skills.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

Commonly used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy whose effectiveness has been demonstrated in helping patients with PTSD recover from traumatic events such as child abuse, warfare, sexual assault, and natural disasters.

During treatment, patients work with a therapist to examine and change harmful beliefs related to the trauma. As a result, the patient develops a new understanding and conceptualization of the traumatic event, decreasing its ongoing negative effects.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Prolonged exposure therapy is another form of cognitive behavioral therapy that works well in treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. This technique teaches individuals to gradually confront their traumatic memories, emotions, and situations that have been avoided since the trauma. Over time, they learn that traumatic memories and triggers are not dangerous and should not be avoided.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is a form of psychotherapy used to alleviate distress caused by traumatic memories. During sessions, patients are visually stimulated while focusing on their trauma. As thoughts and feelings surface, the stimulation helps reduce emotional responses. As a result, trauma-related thoughts will be reprocessed over time.

Preventing Intergenerational Trauma

To stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma, families must have genuine conversations and support each other. As trauma survivors, we have the option to repeat the cycle or design a new narrative to overcome our difficulties. This occurs when family members resolve pain, abuse, and resentment from the past.

As you move forward in the healing process, consider the following tips:

  • Start a dialogue with your parents to learn about their experiences and how they handled them.
  • Identify ingrained family behaviors, attitudes, or narratives you continue to express.
  • Discuss your concerns with another family member, trusted friend, or mental health provider. Consider alternative means of coping or communicating.
  • Be compassionate and empathic towards your family and their struggles. Despite their flaws, many of our ancestors worked hard to give us a better life, which can be celebrated.
  • Develop strategies to help your family heal after a difficult situation.
  • When dealing with stressors or life changes, identify the people in your family who can support you.
  • Create a new narrative for your children about themselves, their families, and the world.

Compassionate Care at CHE

Unaddressed, intergenerational trauma can have long-lasting effects on families and their well-being. While breaking ingrained trauma cycles can be challenging, intergenerational trauma can be treated successfully.

At CHE Behavioral Health Services, we provide comprehensive, compassionate care for trauma and a variety of other mental health conditions. With our trauma-informed treatment programs, families and individuals can achieve physical, spiritual, and emotional healing.

For more information about intergenerational trauma and treatment options offered by CHE Behavioral Health Services, please call 888-515-3834. We are ready to talk, and ready to listen.