It seems that many people are talking about trauma these days. They talk about trauma in childhood. They talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many people have talked about trauma and stress during the pandemic. Some people even talk about stress for pets and providing massages for dogs and cats!
Most of the time, we think about trauma as something that effects individual people. But did you know there is something called “Intergenerational Trauma?” It is emotional and psychological hurt that can be passed on from generation to generation. It is not passed on like Grandma’s vase or your great-grandfather’s antique bicycle. It is more complicated than that, but it is helpful to explore Intergenerational Trauma. When we have a deeper understanding of all aspects of trauma, we can better serve ourselves, our families, and our communities.
First, it might be helpful to define trauma and why it is important to understand. Trauma is an emotional response to a very hard experience and is a response that lasts for an extended period of time. Trauma is not an event, but rather a response to an event or series of events. Because it is a response, different people can go through the same event with only some of them experiencing trauma. The event or series of events might be community violence, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, a natural disaster, an accident, or emotional abuse, among other events.
Research has found that those people who have experienced an event that caused a trauma response might deal with negative mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. A common side effect of trauma is the inability to form healthy relationships or trust other people, especially if the event involved a damaged relationship. Some people have experienced a traumatic event in their lives without being fully aware of it, but they do notice the side effects. Maybe they start having difficulty sleeping, or they are easily startled even though that was not a problem they had before. With help, those people might realize that there was an event that part of their mind was trying to forget. It was affecting them through their sleep and startle responses. Learning about trauma and exploring the event that happened might help those people to heal and move forward.
This background is helpful as we can move on to explain intergenerational trauma. Research in multiple fields such as epidemiology (the study of the source of diseases), psychology, and psychiatry has found that there are some socially learned behaviors that are passed from parents and grandparents to later generations. Those behaviors can result in behavioral and neuroendocrine (brain and hormonal) changes in the children and grandchildren of trauma-exposed parents and grandparents. That intergenerational trauma is commonly found in communities of color because of their common history of oppression and mistreatment. One study conducted with a LatinX community found that its families had experienced multiple types of intergenerationally transmitted trauma connected to years of colonialization, political violence, and challenging immigration.
Signs of intergenerational trauma can be found in the Black community as well, due to the history of being forced into slavery for hundreds of years, having been subject to political violence over that time and since, and being targeted for unethical science experiments. Indications of intergenerational trauma stemming from these horrific experiences have been measured in today’s generations. A study by Dr. Fran H. Norris and Dr. Brian Engdahl in 2017 of 484 children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors along with 191 of their children found that 35% of them experienced anxiety, 26% had major depressive disorder, and 14% had PTSD. When someone comes from a group that has a history of trauma and oppression, it is important to recognize that they may be suffering from both present and intergenerational trauma.
Think about your history. What is the story of your parents and grandparents and your cultural group? They may be strong survivors. But they also may have some history of trauma that became part of your heritage. You may be concerned that you have had difficult experiences as a parent that could be passed to your children. Maybe you or someone you know is experiencing some of the effects of intergenerational trauma. In any case, the more we understand trauma and all the different levels of it, the better we can understand ourselves and our community. One way we can help ourselves, our children, and others in our community is by developing protective factors and learning about resilience after difficult experiences. Research suggests one of the powerful steps is to create a strong community for yourself and your family in which you feel safe and stable. You can work to pass on more strengths than traumas to the next generation!
Cerdeña, J. P., Rivera, L, M., & Spak, J. M. (1982). Intergenerational trauma in Latinxs: A scoping review. Social science & medicine, 270, 113662-11366.
Danieli, Y., Norris, F. H., Engdahl, B., & Kendall-Tackett, K. (2017). A question of who, not if: Psychological disorders in Holocaust survivors’ children. Psychological trauma, 9, 98-106.