Generational trauma, also called intergenerational trauma, can persist in families for decades, passing from parent to child and even grandparent to grandchildren and their children.
While we’re still learning more about the role of generational trauma, initial research has shown profound negative effects on the children of trauma survivors, even if they’ve never experienced trauma themselves.
The good news is that healing from generational trauma is possible, and several therapeutic techniques can help you to break the cycle once and for all.
What Is Generational Trauma?
Generational trauma refers to traumatic events that have a ripple effect across generations. Early research into generational trauma looked at the children of Holocaust survivors and found startling health effects, even though the children had never endured the horrific trauma firsthand.
These adult children, in turn, can pass the trauma to their own children, resulting in a devastating cycle of poor mental health outcomes for entire families, communities, and cultures.
What Causes Generational Trauma?
Generational trauma can begin after any traumatic experience. While the research on Holocaust survivors is the most robust, researchers have explored several other sources of generational trauma, including:
- The Armenian Genocide and the Rwandan Genocide
- The genocide of Indigenous peoples in the Americas, as well as the lingering impact of residential schools
- The enslavement and mass incarceration of Black Americans
- Domestic violence
- Natural disasters
Essentially, any stressful or anxiety-provoking situation can cause lasting changes to behaviors, beliefs, and patterns. These situations can cause people to change the way they view the world. Their children, in turn, learn these behaviors and patterns from their parents.
But generational trauma extends far beyond learned behaviors; it is a social, cultural, and possibly even genetic experience that can cause untold hurt in families living in a trauma cycle.
How Generational Trauma Affects Families
Generational trauma, at its core, is a phenomenon that affects family units. Parents experience trauma firsthand, and the impact carries over to subsequent generations in various ways. Below, we’ve listed some of the main ways generational trauma can affect families.
1. Learned Behaviors
Traumatic events can change the way people view the world around them. It can cause parents to lose trust in other people (or systems), get stuck in survival mode, and shape their beliefs according to their experiences.
One troubling example of how traumatic events can change behaviors that pass through generations is the Tuskegee Experiment. In the 1930s, the U.S. Public Health Service began a racist, abusive, and exploitative experiment: its goal was to investigate the effects of untreated syphilis, but since nobody would volunteer to be infected with a deadly disease, those involved in carrying out the experiment chose to infect 600 Black men in Alabama without their consent.
The researchers were deceitful and told these men that they were receiving treatment for a vague and made-up illness they called “bad blood.” What they were actually doing was infecting them with syphilis. Hundreds of unknowing participants went on to infect their wives, some of whom gave birth to children affected by the disease. None of the men ever received treatment for syphilis.
The Tuskegee experiments are a dark mark on American history and just one example of white healthcare providers experimenting on Black patients. These researchers inflicted untold trauma on innocent people who trusted medical professionals with their health. For the families that were unwitting victims of these experiments, and the Black community at large, there was a clear message to be learned from Tuskegee: don’t trust medical professionals, particularly if they’re white.
In a report from the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, researchers explored how the ripple effect of the Tuskegee experiments affects Black communities to this day. People whose grandparents died as a result of the Tuskegee experiments talk about how they still doubt medical professionals, to the point of denying emergency surgery if there is no Black surgeon available to do the procedure.
This viewpoint is reinforced by implicit bias and racial disparities in healthcare, and without intervention, these behaviors and beliefs can continue to pass down across generations. Parents will share their experiences with their families, and in this way, the past can still determine the outlook for the future.
2. Higher Risk of Mental Illness and Addiction
Another danger of intergenerational trauma is an increased risk of mental illness. Looking at data collected after the Holocaust, Canadian researchers found that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are vastly overrepresented in psychiatric care.
They found that even several generations after the traumatic event, people in these families were more likely to experience addiction and mental illnesses, such as:
There are various reasons mental illnesses can present in a patient. However, the fact that families of Holocaust survivors have higher rates of these illnesses shows a tragic trend: trauma can affect people even decades after the event.
What we do know is that a parent’s perspective can significantly influence their their children’s views, and people who have survived trauma can shape the views of their children. For example, somebody who experiences violence may be hypervigilant, always looking for danger just around the corner. They can then communicate this experience, both directly and indirectly, to their children, who may go on to be hypervigilant themselves.
3. Epigenetic Changes
Another potential factor at work in generational trauma is genetics. “Epigenetics” refers to a field of study examining how gene expression can change because of certain behaviors and environmental factors. Epigenetic changes don’t change the genes themselves. Instead, they change how your body reads those genes.
Parents who experience traumatic stress or hardship, such as famine, can experience epigenetic changes. If these epigenetic changes happen before they have children, the changes can affect their future offspring well into adulthood. For example, one study found that parents exposed to famine in the prenatal period went on to have children who were more susceptible to disease as adults.
Epigenetic changes from both parents play a role, and these changes are coded into DNA passed to the child from the parents before conception. In this way, generational trauma becomes physically inherited by younger generations.
4. Physical Health
Generational trauma can affect your physical health in ways other than disease susceptibility. A recent study examined the mortality rates of children of Civil War soldiers. The children of men who were held as prisoners of war (POWs) had lower life expectancies than non-soldiers.
Furthermore, the children of POW soldiers in camps with less harsh conditions lived longer than those whose parents were in the worst POW camps. Researchers concluded that the intensity of a traumatic event could further shape physical health outcomes.
How to Stop the Trauma Cycle
The first step to stopping the trauma cycle is preventing future trauma. People who were abused physically by their parents, for instance, need to learn the skills and coping mechanisms to break the cycle with their own children.
The next step is to seek professional care for your current traumas, including any intergenerational trauma. Counselors and mental health professionals have the tools and professional experience to help people process their trauma, understand its cause, and work to prevent it from happening again. They can help illuminate how past events shape your future behavior and how those behaviors can pass down to your children. Some families may benefit from family systems therapy to address maladaptive behaviors as a unit and as individuals.
Recovering from intergenerational trauma isn’t easy, but it is possible with time, dedication, and compassionate assistance from mental health professionals. If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North uses therapeutic techniques to help survivors of trauma, visit our contact page to speak to one of our representatives.
- DeAngelis, T. (2019, February). The legacy of trauma. Monitor on Psychology, 50(2). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-trauma
- Sacks, Tina K., et al. “How Ancestral Trauma Informs Patients’ Health Decision Making.” Journal of Ethics, American Medical Association, 1 Feb. 2021, https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/how-ancestral-trauma-informs-patients-health-decision-making/2021-02.