Intergenerational transmission of trauma may be understood as the ongoing impact of traumatic events and situations that happened in prior generations and continues to impact the current generation. Trauma can be passed down through a multitude of factors, including epigenetic processes that increase vulnerability to various mental disorders 1, repeated patterns of abusive or neglectful behavior, poor parent-child relationships, negative beliefs about parenting, personality disorders, substance abuse, family violence, sexual abuse, and unhealthy behavior patterns and attitudes 2.
In some families, poor parenting and unsupportive family relationships are seen as normal and these patterns repeat — and cause damage — in subsequent generations.
Many families hide sexual abuse for generations. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse creates a highly toxic and damaging emotional atmosphere and warps interactions within the family.
In families where there is a history of abuse, shame can become deeply ingrained. Internalized feelings of shame will damage perceptions of self that can lead to self-blame and self-harm. Shame can also encourage silence and avoidance of asking for help, leading to problems with finding closure or healing from early or ongoing trauma.3
Awareness, Education, and Understanding
Awareness of intergenerational trauma can help reduce shame. Understanding how and why abuse and trauma are transmitted through the generations can increase compassion towards ourselves and our family members. Understanding is often the first step in making a decision to seek help.
Understanding Trauma Bonding can help us gain an objective perspective on our need to continue abusive relationships. Trauma Bonding can occur in families and intimate relationships where patterns of violence and emotional abuse are interchanged with reconciliation and nurturing.4 This zig-zag can be especially damaging for children who only experience cycles of abuse-reconciliation-nurturing followed by abuse again as they grow up. Understandably, as these children mature then they often repeat these patterns in their own intimate relationships and families.
Understanding how anxiety is another symptom of people raised in traumatic family environments can also help broaden perspective. Anxiety can be passed down through the generations even without abuse. In a healthy nurturing environment, we learn to cope with uncertainty and learn to soothe our fears early in childhood. These coping abilities are developed through interactions and contact with emotionally stable and supportive caregivers. If children do not have access to consistent and supportive caregiving, they miss out on important opportunities to develop coping skills and emotion regulation abilities on biological, emotional, and cognitive levels 5. A mother may treat her children as well as she can, but if she lacks the ability to cope with anxiety, it is difficult if not impossible for her to teach these skills to her own children.
Healing future generations through therapy today.
If you are experiencing the effects of intergenerational trauma, consider working with a therapist who is trained in trauma and understands the intergenerational transmission of trauma. A therapist with training in intergenerational trauma can help you begin the process of healing.
When you work through underlying issues and learn about the nature of intergenerational trauma, the effect of therapy can go beyond your personal experience. As you learn, heal, and grow, you can stop the cycle for yourself, your children, and your grandchildren.