When it comes to helping children cope with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) we need to get one thing straight: We cannot help children heal from trauma if we are not equally putting effort towards the mental health of parents and caregivers. In my opinion, the focus is heavily on helping children cope with trauma, which is absolutely necessary, but we are often missing the fact that parents also need treatment and support due to a history of trauma in their life. I know that we are moving in this direction, but with the discovery of trauma being passed down from generation to generation the conversation is more pertinent than ever.

I use the phrase “bottom-up” because the parent is the foundation and roots of the child’s life. A parent’s role is to be a grounding force as children face the challenges and stressors in their young lives. Children need to feel safe and stable in order to thrive. In addition, the parent’s trauma typically happens first and can make a deep and lasting negative impact on the child’s well-being.

First, let’s uncover what transgenerational trauma is. Transgenerational trauma is a form of trauma that is passed down from generation to generation through behaviors, beliefs, and potentially biology. Yes, biology. There is circumstantial evidence that suggests trauma can be passed to our offspring genetically. If this is the case, how can we continue to ignore the impact of trauma on everyone’s future, including those who did not directly experience it? Types of trauma that are especially prone to transmission to future generations are:

  • Extreme poverty
  • Racism
  • Abuse and neglect
  • Witnessing violence
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Military experiences
  • Terrorism
  • Ambiguous loss

The good news is that, although trauma can be passed down, emotional resiliency can also be passed down to our offspring. That’s why a bottom-up approach is crucial to stop the cycle of trauma taking place in our world today.

Overcoming trauma does not happen in a vacuum. Even if progress is made in the counselor’s office, a child’s progress will unravel, when they return to the dysfunction taking place in the home. We need to look at trauma not as one event that takes place, but as a constellation of events that invade one’s mental health and their ability to cope with everyday stressors, like parenting. When a parent/caregiver is living with unprocessed trauma, raising a child can trigger memories of abuse and neglect that interfere with their ability to regulate their emotions. These triggers make it difficult to make healthy parenting decisions in the heat of the moment.

As professionals we will ask ourselves how to reach the parent with trauma, and it starts with building trust. At the root of trauma is a foundational breach of safety and trust. By shifting our perspective to look at the caregiver as someone who is not broken, but coping the best they can with unprocessed trauma, we will be able to make connections that might not be possible otherwise. We will not be able to reach all caregivers, but if we are able to meet a fraction of them where they are and truly care for them, we will be making a massive residual improvement on the lives of children and the world at large.

As a therapist who worked closely with the child welfare system, I witnessed countless children struggling with trauma and loss who were unable to access treatment. As a current volunteer advocating for children in the foster care system, I have a young child on my caseload who is not receiving treatment for the trauma and neglect she experienced because “she seems ok.” This is not due to a lack of concern, but because of inadequate mental health resources for children in the child welfare system.

So what does transgenerational trauma look like? This is an example from my perspective as a family therapist: A person with untreated mental health challenges and or a history of trauma chooses to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or sex out of sheer desperation and a lack of coping skills. This person has children. These children are exposed to trauma, abuse, and neglect by their parents typically in relation to addiction. Out of a need for safety, the child is removed and placed in foster or kinship care. The child doesn’t receive the necessary mental health treatment due to a lack of resources. This child seems “ok” while young, but as they reach adolescence, they begin to exhibit symptoms of complex PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

Meanwhile, untreated mom and dad continue to have children who end up in the care of others. The child/teen of untreated parents begins to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma they experienced and the cycle repeats. This is how trauma is passed down from generation to generation. There is also evidence arising in research that trauma can be passed down to children through their DNA, but more studies are needed in this area to confirm.

So how do we interrupt the cycle? It’s not a simple answer, but it starts with building awareness. It begins with conversations and relationships. It begins with ending the stigma of mental health care. It begins with making treatment mandatory for children in the foster care system. It’s using a wide-angle lens on the child’s trauma as an extension of their parent’s trauma.

We are only now becoming aware of how adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) impact the health and wellness of our society as a whole, but this is no excuse. Now that we know better, we need to do better.

The Bottom-up Approach for Stopping Transgenerational Trauma

  • Trauma therapy for the child needs to happen in tandem with the adult caregiver. Isolated trauma therapy for a child will not succeed when the caregiver is not part of the therapy process. This includes biological parents, foster parents, and relatives caring for children.
  • Any child in foster care or kinship care has experienced trauma, often complex trauma, and is at risk for serious mental health issues. They need and deserve treatment regardless of their “ok” status at 2, 8, and 12 years old.
  • Screen for trauma first! In many cases with children in care, it’s not oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), ADHD, or ADD; it’s trauma. Look underneath the behavior, and you will find the cause is often a history of untreated trauma. The child may appear to have ADD/ODD because their nervous system is on high alert for danger, making it difficult for them to sit still, regulate emotions, and concentrate. We need to stop automatically pathologizing the behavior of a child and medicating them without screening for trauma first.
  • If a child’s caregiver or parents have a history of unresolved trauma, they need access to personal counseling or parenting coaching so they are not triggered by their past while parenting. A parent who is emotionally unregulated will not be an effective parent for a child who is trying to learn emotional regulation skills. Co-regulation is a process that takes place at birth between child and caregiver, and it is crucial for healthy emotional development. If a parent is unable to regulate their nervous system, the child will not learn how to regulate their nervous system.
  • Trauma doesn’t destroy the person, it destroys their trust. Heal trust; heal trauma.
  • Empower the parent by caring about their mental health and providing education on trauma-responsive parenting skills.

We can prevent the transmission of transgenerational trauma by intervening early and often with parents and children at risk. I know we can do better for the well-being of our communities. I know we can do better for the safety of children. I know we can do better to stop the unnecessary cycle of trauma. I have hope, and hope is where change begins. I ask you to join me.