Generational trauma refers to traumatic events that impact generations that follow it.
The concept of generational trauma is centered around the transmission of trauma and its effects on individuals within a group for generations. This can refer to family members or other bonded communities that experience traumatic events or behaviors.
The psychological and emotional effects of traumatic events can be passed down over time. These effects can often cause intense challenges for future generations.
Generational trauma may be seen in families with trauma survivors who have experienced oppression, racism, discrimination, or violence.
Research shows that the effects of trauma can be passed down to children; this is known as transgenerational trauma.
Generational trauma is a real thing that causes real, devastating effects on individuals and their family members. Mental and emotional struggles are often minimized by those who do not experience them firsthand. However, both documented experiences and scientific research indicate that the shockwaves left by traumatic experiences can continue beyond one lifetime.
Generational trauma can be seen in individuals through various symptoms such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or self-destructive behaviors.
Relationships within a family with generational trauma may involve codependency or unhealthy attachment styles. These attachment styles can cause dysfunctional family dynamics that can perpetuate the effects of generational trauma.
To uncover generational trauma, you must first identify where the traumatic responses are coming from. The sources of generational trauma, such as systematic discrimination, can be difficult to uproot, even after they are identified.
The second step is to acknowledge the trauma and its impact on your life nonjudgmentally. Feelings of guilt or shame can make symptoms worse.
Then, it is essential that families and communities experiencing the collateral of generational trauma seek professional support. For example, this could look like family therapy under the guidance of someone in the psychiatry field.
After learning coping strategies and finding effective support systems, it becomes possible to heal.
Generational trauma can feel different for each individual. However, it can make a person have a hard time trusting others, feel very hopeless about the future, or cause them to experience feelings of anxiety and depression.
It is also important to note that generational trauma can feel different in the same person at different stages of life. For example, the impact of unhealthy family dynamics will likely look very different to a young child than it does to an adolescent or an adult who no longer lives at home.
Not every family experiences generational trauma.
However, generational trauma does not always involve one big traumatic event. It can also happen in families who display a pattern of abuse or have experienced prolonged, complex trauma.
It is believed that intergenerational transmission of trauma can be passed down through genetic changes to a person’s DNA after they experience trauma. These effects are called “epigenetic changes.”
Research shows that DNA can “remember” traumatic experiences and then pass down the effects of those experiences to multiple generations. However, DNA does not carry memories of events and emotions in the same way that the mind does.
In the same way that a tree “remembers” the cut of an ax as it grows with the cut mark, future generations can carry the scars of generational trauma even if they did not experience it firsthand.
The legacy of Trauma may also be passed down culturally. Over the years, family members may learn unhealthy behaviors from their parents or other family members, imitate the behaviors, and eventually teach those behaviors to their children.
Generational trauma is caused by extreme events, abuse, or prolonged periods of difficult times.
Common causes of intergenerational trauma can include:
Generational trauma typically starts with adverse childhood experiences, such as child abuse.
Then, when they become adults, childhood trauma impacts their decisions, how they feel, and even the way they perceive and handle relationships.
The collective trauma and its effects can then be passed down to their children, their children’s children, and so on.
Generational trauma can be passed down both genetically and culturally.
Traumatic responses are often thought of as being completely tied to personal experiences. However, research shows that generational trauma can get passed down through a person’s DNA to their offspring through epigenetic changes.
When a person or group of people experience traumatic experiences like war, racism, sexism, natural disasters, abuse, or oppression, the effects of the trauma can get passed down through generations, even when later generations have not experienced it firsthand.
Generational trauma may be present in individuals and families who display signs of:
The effects of trauma can carry down through generations, which causes distinct patterns to emerge.
Family members may follow the same patterns as their parents or grandparents, even without consciously realizing that they are mirroring those behaviors. It is incredibly difficult to break a cycle of generational trauma because it is often deep-rooted and widespread across multiple parts of their life.
However, it is possible to break these patterns and heal from the trauma that has been present in your family history.
Common symptoms of generational trauma can include:
These symptoms can be seen across multiple generations, even if their specific behaviors differ depending on personal circumstances.
There are many symptoms of intergenerational trauma, however, there are five distinct symptoms that are very common in traumatized families and communities.
Individuals with generational trauma can have difficulty processing and communicating their emotions. They also often experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and isolation.
Generational trauma happens when traumatic experiences and their effects are passed down from one generation to another.
Generational trauma can be different and unique to each and different groups of people. While something may not seem severely traumatic to someone from an outside perspective, the mental, emotional, and interpersonal damage is very real.
Some people may have generational trauma from one single incident; others may have it from long and repeated experiences of different traumatic experiences.
One of the most well-known cases of generational trauma dates back to the mass enslavement of African Americans.
The violence, oppression, discrimination, and racism towards African Americans for generations have had lasting impacts on individuals in the community. Descendants of enslaved peoples experience higher rates of fear, hopelessness, anger, anxiety, helplessness, mental health problems, and more.
Another example of generational trauma is when children of Holocaust survivors experience extreme stress beyond their personal life experiences. For example, they may practice survivalism even though they are generationally removed from the Holocaust.
Generational trauma can impact groups of people, families, and individuals.
In families, different types of trauma can cause adverse effects, including:
Generational trauma can challenge the mental health and overall well-being of those who experience it.
It can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. Know that you are not alone and there is support for you. You can call the National Suicide Lifeline at 988 or call 911.
Some mental health issues associated with generational trauma can include anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A person with generational trauma may experience feelings of shame, helplessness, and low self-esteem.
They may have negative thoughts and feelings about themselves and the world around them based on the experiences they, or their loved ones, have gone through.
It can also be hard to regulate your emotions and manage stress where underlying trauma has been unaddressed and present for so long. Some patterns may feel invisible to those who use them, since they have been a part of their entire lives and the lives of their family members.
Generational trauma can also put a person at a higher risk of mental health conditions and substance use problems, including addiction.
Prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can put a person at risk of severe mental and physical health conditions. Toxic family dynamics, for example, can put a near-constant strain on family members.
Both stress and trauma can increase the chance of a person having chronic pain, illnesses, and conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Generational trauma can also lead to unhealthy behaviors, including substance use disorders and addiction.
Some people may turn to substances and alcohol to cope with unacknowledged or suppressed feelings and trauma that may be underlying. As a result, it can lead to unhealthy cycles that can be passed down to other generations.
Communications Biology states, “Intergenerational trauma increases lifetime susceptibility to depression and other psychiatric disorders.”
Over time, stress and trauma can rewire the brain and alter the activity of important systems which impact a person’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being.
Generational trauma may lead to symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Common symptoms of PTSD can include:
It is possible to break the cycle of generational trauma.
Breaking generational trauma takes intense work and effort. To break generational trauma, a person has to understand the underlying problem, learn how to work through it, and learn ways to prevent and treat the root cause of the problem so that the patterns do not pass to the next generation.
Signs a person is breaking generational trauma patterns can include:
One of the most significant ways to break generational trauma is by openly and honestly communicating with your children and other family members or caregivers.
Another way is to try to observe and gain awareness of your family’s patterns and whether you contribute to these patterns too. Only by uprooting the patterns you have learned from previous generations can you begin to teach younger generations how to heal.
Lastly, talking to a trauma therapist and learning healthy ways to cope and work through the trauma can give you the tools to work towards healing.
Breaking generational trauma is not easy to do.
It can take a lot of time, patience, and effort and can be emotionally difficult. However, you do not have to do it alone.
But, having support and learning new ways to cope and heal can help you improve your health and well-being, little by little.
Generational trauma, like an untended wound, does not go away on its own.
Additionally, unacknowledged and unresolved trauma can get worse over time. It can also become worse as more and more generations become entrenched in unhealthy coping patterns. However, with support, it is possible to break the patterns that have impacted your family and community.
Generational trauma does not have to keep going forever.
A person can heal from generational trauma and break the patterns in their own family. It is difficult to be the first person to end the chain of trauma-based behavior, but it is a valuable way to help protect communities from the harm of generational trauma.
Taking the step to start healing generational trauma can be a big one, but some ways to start can involve:
Trauma-informed care can be a practical and effective approach for individuals with generational trauma and focuses on understanding, acknowledging, and responding to a person’s life experiences.
There are some tips and techniques that you can use to manage and heal from generational trauma, which can include:
Historical trauma refers to multigenerational trauma that occurs in specific cultural, racial, or ethnic groups and is related to oppression and major traumatic events like slavery, the Holocaust, forced migration, or the colonization of Native Americans.
Some ways to help heal from historical trauma can include:
If you or a loved one have generational trauma, reaching out for professional support from a therapist, clinician, or another mental health professional is best.
Seeking therapy for generational trauma or historical trauma can help you learn healthy coping mechanisms and begin to heal and break the patterns left by oppression, violence, and discrimination.
Family therapy can also help work to heal the entire family system.
There is no set timeline for how long it takes to reverse trauma or break generational trauma patterns.
But healing from trauma doesn’t just happen overnight. It can be a long process; for some people, it may be months, and for others, it may take years.
No minimum or maximum amount of how many generations it takes to overcome trauma exists.
If a person has generational trauma passed down from past generations, whether it be their parents or six generations ago, they can overcome trauma and break the patterns themselves.
If you or a loved one are working through trauma, seek help today. Know that you are not alone and can break the generational trauma pattern and create a new story for you and your loved ones.
Talk to someone you trust and connect to professional support, whether through your healthcare provider, a therapist, or another mental health professional.
Our goal is to provide the most helpful information. Please reach out to us if you have any additional questions. We are here to help in any way we can.
Intergenerational trauma is another term used to describe generational trauma.
Other terms related to generational trauma can include multigenerational, historical, or secondary traumatization.
Trauma passed down on to the next generation is known as generational trauma.
Disney’s film ‘Encanto’ may resonate with families who have experienced generational trauma.
In the movie, the grandmother and grandfather are seen fleeing from their home with their three children. In the process, the grandmother loses her husband, the father of her children.
They were then blessed with a miracle that gave them a magical home, and from that point, the grandmother held her family to high expectations and made sure that they did not let anyone down and that she would not lose another family member again.
The trauma she endured from being forced out of her home, losing her husband, and having to take care of triplets on her own, led to impossible expectations to be perfect and fear that passed down trauma to her children and their children.
The forced migration that traumatized the grandmother affected her children and her grandchildren. Her family was afraid to lose their home, disappoint their grandmother, not meet her standards, and lose the miracle they were given years ago.
Similarly to ‘Encanto,’ the movie, ‘Turning Red,’ also deals with generational trauma and being a first-generation child of immigrants. The main character, Mei Lee, shares similarities with the main character of ‘Encanto,’ Mirabel.
Both young ladies face the pressures of being perfect for their parents or grandparents and feelings that they are coming up short. Both of them also have family members in multiple generations who experience the same fears.
Feelings of self-doubt impacted self-esteem, and feeling disconnected from the world around them are all effects of trauma endured by the generations before them.
It is believed that trauma can leave a chemical mark on DNA and therefore be passed down to offspring and future generations.
This idea that memories can be passed down through DNA is complicated. Research has shown that DNA may “remember” things by shifting when under intense stress. However, DNA doesn’t store specific memories of emotions or events like our minds do.
Generational trauma can affect future generations and impact the choices they make, how they feel, their relationships, and how they act.
Intergenerational trauma can affect the health and overall well-being of future generations and the communities that form around them.
Generational trauma can lead to negative effects on the health and well-being of future generations. Sandstone Care is here to support teens and young adults with mental health and substance use disorders.