What Is Intergenerational Trauma and How Can You Begin to Heal From It? image

What Is Intergenerational Trauma and How Can You Begin to Heal From It?

There are many positive things that can be passed down in families — your sense of humor, traditions, cherished memories and more. But you can also inherit emotional damage, a phenomenon called generational trauma.

Generational trauma — also called intergenerational trauma — is an emotional wound that extends from one generation to the next. Its effects can be seen in individuals, families and entire communities, and the cycle of inherited trauma often repeats itself.

“It’s [a] series of events and behaviors that are related to events that happened many years ago to someone in your family that they then replicate, talk about or share in some way with their descendants,” says Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, MHSc, psychologist, author and founder of the AAKOMA Project.

But you can break the cycle: Although healing from all types of trauma takes time, it is possible.

To help, here’s an overview of intergenerational trauma, including what it is, what it looks like, who’s affected by it, and ways to start healing.

What’s Generational Trauma?

Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, was among the first to explore the definition of generational trauma in 1966 after finding that rates of psychological distress were high among children of Holocaust survivors, per the American Psychological Association (APA).

Since then, the term has evolved to refer more generally to trauma that’s transmitted from one generation to the next through biological, social and psychological factors, according to Duke University.

Any traumatic event that causes deep distress can be passed on. Here is a non-exhaustive list of experiences that can lead to generational trauma, according to the APA:

  • Systemic and cultural oppression
  • War
  • Genocide
  • Poverty
  • Slavery
  • Assault or abuse

For instance, a parent may be unable to offer emotional support if their child is sexually assaulted because they haven’t processed their own experience with abuse. Or a grandparent that refuses to face their scarring experience fighting in a war may in turn teach their grandchildren to dismiss and minimize their emotional hardships.

Another key component of intergenerational trauma is vicarious distress. “Trauma is not just about a traumatic event, but our response to the event,” Breland-Noble says. “[It’s] the idea that I can be a witness to something, and it impacts me as if I was the person that it was happening to.”

Intergenerational trauma can look like the following, according to the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health:

  • Unresolved emotions and thoughts about the traumatic event
  • Poor parent-child relationships
  • Complicated personality traits or personality disorders
  • Negative repeated patterns of behavior

There are also physical effects of intergenerational trauma. For example, a February 2021 study in the ​International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health​ found that historical trauma, stress and racism are linked to higher rates of cardiometabolic disease in Indigenous communities.

A June 2013 review in ​Obstetric Medicine​ also found that prenatal stress — like fears about parenthood or your baby’s health — can have lasting physical consequences for the birthing parent and the child, including low birth weight, premature delivery and gestational diabetes.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — research still has a long way to go in fully exploring the effects of intergenerational trauma. Nonetheless, the term is becoming more mainstream, says Ajita Robinson, PhD, grief and trauma therapist and author of ​The Gift of Grief​.

“The public has become aware of the term generational trauma and are able to recognize how it has shown up in their lived experiences,” Robinson says. “[Millennials] grew up with mental health being normalized — they have the language to identify that certain behaviors and familial norms are rooted in trauma.”

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