What Is Intergenerational Trauma

Understanding Intergenerational Trauma

We’re all permanently affected by the family dynamics we experience in childhood and early life. Some of us can recognize where our emotional or behavioral issues come from. Sometimes we can pinpoint elements of our parents’ behavior that led to them. However, that awareness itself doesn’t help improve our negative emotions. Nobody’s a perfect parent, and while some might be better at it than others, there are also other factors to consider.

First of all, you might not be fully aware of the kind of childhood your own parents had. They could carry a lot of damage caused by their parents, and this is where the saying “Hurt people hurt people” is particularly evident. Your parents or grandparents may have endured emotional or physical pain and failed to learn how to cope with it in a healthy way. They may have passed it down to you through their behavior because it’s the only way they know.

Even if additional trauma isn’t present, intergenerational trauma can still be passed on. It may go back further than your parents or grandparents, reverberating across many generations, caused by many different events. As a result, it’s possible to experience and live with trauma symptoms and behavior patterns, struggling to recover from emotional trauma even though you personally didn’t experience a traumatic event yourself.

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is the type of trauma that gets passed on from trauma survivors to their children or other descendants. It’s also known as secondary traumatization or historical trauma, when it refers to traumatic events related to racial, ethnic, or cultural oppression. Again, the historical context is essential here, whether it’s about family or more extensive community history.

Intergenerational trauma doesn’t have to be limited to parents or grandparents; it can go further down the family line. As a result, you might feel all the signs and symptoms of a traumatized person without even realizing where all the fear and other accompanying distressing emotions come from.

The point of a trauma response is to be adaptive. Unfortunately, it can turn into something severely harmful when it becomes ever-present in your life. If persistent feelings of high alertness, fear, and expecting danger sound familiar, this could be a sign of intergenerational trauma.

What Can Contribute To Intergenerational Trauma?

The range of life circumstances and hardships that can be passed on to one’s offspring in the form of intergenerational trauma is quite broad. It can include smaller groups of people, like one’s immediate family, or entire communities, like religious, racial, or national ones.

When it comes to family dynamics, the common factors that contribute to developing trauma and passing it on to the next generations include:

  • Witnessing or experiencing verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.
  • Emotional or physical neglect or abandonment, particularly in early life and childhood.
  • Loss of a loved one, like the death of a parent or sibling.

However, there are also large-scale, traumatic historical events that affect entire communities. Their influence can transfer beyond the people that survived them. The list of traumatic events most commonly includes:

  • Wars.
  • Forced migration.
  • Different types of oppression, like systemic racism or other types of discrimination.
  • Ethnic cleansing or genocide.
  • Cultural genocide.
  • Enslavement.
  • Separation of children from their families.
  • Natural disasters.
  • Lasting famine or poverty.
  • Major global or national crises.
What Can Contribute To Intergenerational Trauma

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Intergenerational Trauma?

If it feels like you’re having a more difficult time dealing with the usual life hardships than most people you know, you might be experiencing the effects of trauma. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of intergenerational trauma is particularly important as it may cause problems in your relationships with other people due to communication issues. It can also cause unresolved distress in your romantic relationships and affect your parenting style.

The most common signs that point to intergenerational trauma are a bit different than the common trauma symptoms and can significantly differ from case to case. In addition, they can sometimes be difficult to spot because they’re also typical for other mental health conditions like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, they usually include the following:

  • Emotional numbness or having a tough time identifying and expressing feelings.
  • A sense of detachment from your feelings and body.
  • Heightened response to stress, not being able to control emotions.
  • Feeling helpless and vulnerable.
  • Low self-esteem, shame, guilt.
  • Difficulty connecting with others, trusting them, and building healthy relationships.
  • Feeling isolated.
  • Risky behavior, substance use.
  • Nightmares.
  • Intrusive thoughts, thinking about death or suicide.

All these symptoms can severely affect your well-being. Regarding your mental health and sense of self, intergenerational trauma can cause considerable problems, particularly if you’re unaware of its origin. Only by identifying and addressing these feelings can you begin healing and minimizing the chances of passing them down to your children.

Can You Avoid Passing Such Trauma On?

You might not have experienced any trauma yourself. However, being informed about how it transfers and manifests can help you make sense of your feelings and behaviors and how you relate to other people and the environment you live in.

When someone experiences severe trauma, their DNA activates genes to help them survive. This is known as the fright, flight, or freeze response. These genes pass on to the next generations to prepare them for potential danger.

Those genes are meant to keep us safe, so the survival mode can be encoded in the family DNA and passed down to multiple generations. The downside is that it can cause constant fear and anticipation of danger. In addition, being stuck in this survival response can be highly stressful and harmful to one’s mental and physical health.

Recognizing and acknowledging the symptoms can make you aware of what you’re dealing with and what kind of help you might need to address your issues. You can minimize the chances of perpetuating the cycle of intergenerational trauma by being informed about the signs and the effects of trauma. That way, you can find appropriate expert guidance to help you change the way you think and respond to triggers.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Intergenerational Trauma

How to Recover From Emotional Trauma And Minimize The Chances Of Passing It On

Healing from trauma requires adopting some healthier coping mechanisms, more positive thoughts, and behavior patterns. You can learn how to avoid triggers or respond to them in less harmful ways that won’t put pressure on yourself and your relationships with others. This is particularly important regarding the family you create, your romantic partner and your children. Our experienced relationship advocates can help you identify and address the issues that are causing the problems in private, individual sessions.

However, don’t forget that intergenerational trauma is not uncommon, and many other people are going through similar experiences. It might make you feel better to hear their stories and tackle the issues in one of our small group workshops guided by PIVOT coaches. Realizing that other people are facing these same challenges can create additional motivation and strength. You can learn how to cope with them and start healing – for your own well-being and that of your family and children.

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