Addressing Generational Trauma
Updated: Jan 17
Generational trauma, sometimes called intergenerational trauma or transgenerational trauma, is the impact of a traumatic experience, not only to the individual who experienced it, but its affects on subsequent generations after the traumatic event.
Experiencing a traumatic event can leave a lasting impact on a person. It can shape their physiology, thoughts, emotional reactions, beliefs, values, coping mechanisms, decision making, and behaviors. In the mental health field, we describe trauma as “Big T”, such as childhood abuse, or “little t”, such as being rejected from a job application, depending on how intense the individual experiences the negative effects of the event. When we experience a traumatic event, we have psychological, emotional, and physical reactions. This can look like anxiety, problems sleeping, feeling disconnected or confused, having intrusive thoughts, or withdrawing from others. In children, the effects of trauma can look like wanting to avoid school, tummy aches, problems with sleeping and eating, angry outbursts, and attention-seeking behaviors.
Traumatic events that may lead to generational trauma include war, death, divorce, substance abuse, immigration, violence, and abuse (e.g., sexual, physical, emotional), car accidents, or natural disasters. Left unaddressed, a parent can indirectly expose their children to the trauma through their parenting, communication, and relationship with their children. Parents may unintentionally place their children in similar situations that led to their trauma. Events such as the Holocaust, war, famine, refugee camps, and slavery have had effects on generations of people worldwide.
How trauma is passed onto the next generation?
1. Parents may continue to relive traumatic events, become emotionally detached and numb, experience dissociative episodes where they become detached from reality.
2. Parents affected by trauma may be constantly hyper vigilant, fearful, and warning of threats, when there are no longer any objective dangers.
3. Parents may have difficulty coping with distress. When challenges in life arise, they may lack the skills to stay grounded in reality, maintain perspective, implement strategies to cope, and regulate their emotions.
4. Parents may model anxious, catastrophic thought patterns and beliefs.
Symptoms of generational trauma Generational trauma can be seen through family patterns of denial, avoidance, depersonalization, isolation, memory loss, nightmares, detachment, hypervigilance, substance abuse, escapism, identification with death, issues with self-esteem, unhealthy coping strategies, and unresolved grief. Other commons symptoms include: Mistrust, anger, irritability, fearfulness, and the inability to connect with others. Trauma can also affect our physiology, compromising our immune system and make us susceptible to illness. If a parent does not address the affects of trauma it had on them, it can manifest itself in their children: Avoiding school, difficulty focusing, developmental delays, underperforming, and psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems.
Examples of a family experiencing generational trauma:
- A family may be emotionally avoidant or numb. - A family may be emotionally reactive with strong hesitancies about certain topics, responding with intense avoidance, anger, or fear.
- A family might have trust issues with “outsiders”, being judging and critical of others.
- A family may be continually conflictual, unable to be agreeable, needing to find the flaws in others.
- A family may be anxious and overly protective of their family members, even when there is no threat of danger.
How to address generational trauma Safety is a foundational strategy to address trauma. When everything in our thoughts, body, and emotions is activated and warning of us imminent danger, we will continue to fuel the symptoms of trauma. When we grow up with family dynamics that make us feel unsafe, invalidated for our feelings and experiences, we will struggle to move past generational trauma. The key intervention is to build safety in your life. Take steps to be safe and secure. To physically be safe: lock your doors, set up security cameras, have people you can reach out to when you need help. For emotional safety, ask friends and family members to validate and empathize with your emotions. For psychological safety, build trusting relationships where you can give and receive unconditional acceptance, so you can be vulnerable with your thoughts, opinions, desires, struggles and experiences with one another.
Open and honest communication: Reach out to families who have been cut off. Open up channels of communication to offer reconciliation and healing.
Build trust: Clarify expectations that you have of one another. Acknowledge when family members have taken steps to make changes. Take steps to set healthy boundaries. If a family member is not able to meet basic expectations of mutual respect and consideration, keep them at a safe distance.
Expose the secret: Secrets, lies, and deception are central to the continuation of generational trauma. To begin healing, people need to know the extent of past issues. Take steps to expose the truth of the trauma. Communicate honestly with each family member providing them information about the facts of what happened.
Identify and discuss the impact of the traumatic event: Once the secrets are shared, people can begin to see the impact of the trauma. Identify how the trauma as affected each person in the family and each subsequent generation. Anger, sadness, anxiety, and unhealthy coping strategies can be traced to the effects of trauma.
Work as a team to overcome generational trauma: With generational trauma, it is difficult to know who is a victim and who is a perpetrator. Be intentional not to assign blame and point fingers. Instead, work together to stop generational trauma, heal from it, and work towards the goal of improving the family now and for future generations. Ask each family member if they are willing to work together through their family's trauma in order to help break the cycle.
Learn from past mistakes: Brainstorm and find ways to stop adding new trauma by changing unhealthy patterns of generational trauma.
Build generational resilience Just as the effects of a traumatic experiences can be passed down from one generation to the next, so can the ability to overcome the trauma and building resilience. Resilience is the ability to remain composed in the face of hardship, it is mental toughness, the ability to persevere and to not give up working towards your goals when things are difficult. Generational resilience can be built through open and loving communication, sharing tools and resources with one another to cope more effectively with their stress and life's challenges.
Parenting strategies Children need to know that they are safe and cared for by trusted adults. When parents' pass their attitudes of mistrust, doubt, resentment and insecurity to their children, the children will learn to view the world from this perspective. Have regular and open conversations with your children about life experiences and how to cope with them. Practice empathy and compassion for your family and the struggles they've experienced.