Written by Hafsa Saleemi,
Medically reviewed by:
Steven Lucero, PHD, MBA
Assoc. Director of Therapy
We can inherit a lot from our family—whether it be characteristics that we can see right away, like height or eye color, or aspects that we can’t, like personality traits or certain genetic predispositions.
Trauma falls into the latter category and can impact families across generations. This type of impact is known as generational trauma (you may also hear intergenerational trauma or transgenerational trauma).
What exactly is generational trauma?
Generational trauma is trauma, or the effects of trauma, that are passed on and experienced by more than one person. It can be nuanced, complex, and indirectly addressed. People experiencing generational trauma describe picking up on these implied lessons as they observe their family members struggling to overcome systemic barriers in their lives.
Dr. Steven Lucero, associate director of therapy at Brightside Health, emphasizes this. “It’s important to know that generational trauma is a systemic issue, not an individual one,” he says. “Generational trauma isn’t an explicit lesson taught by a parent to a child. It’s interwoven more subtly into how families interact with one another and with the outside world.”
For example, a parent that was in a car accident that led to the loss of their sibling may act emotionally distant as they observed negative reactions from their family whenever they brought up the pain associated with that loss. If they never healed or dealt with the trauma, their children may deal with their emotions in a similar way as the family reinforces avoidance of such an emotionally fraught topic. When a traumatic experience does occur again in the future, they may try to cope with denying or minimizing the situation.
Researchers have been studying the effects of generational trauma and how to treat it for decades. Here are some examples of intergenerational trauma:
- In one 1988 study, published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were found to be 300% overrepresented in psychiatric care referrals.
- Research in Neuropsychopharmacology found that the effects of parental stress can be directly transmitted to offspring during pregnancy or during early postnatal care of newborns.
- A study published in the Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2020 found that the occupational lives of second-generation Ilankai Tamil and Vietnamese refugees were heavily influenced by generational trauma: Sociohistorical, cultural, and familial contexts influenced the way second-generation refugees view what they can and should do.
Who is susceptible to generational trauma?
All of us are susceptible to generational trauma but there are certain groups that are more at risk. This includes families who have experienced:
- Systematic exploitation
Marginalized groups such as BIPOC and those with lower socioeconomic status may experience more prominent generational trauma, because of the consistent and ongoing problems their families have had to face over time.
In some cases, generational trauma is due to a collective historical trauma—such as refugees and Holocaust survivors—and other times, it is not—such as a family dealing with domestic violence or abuse.
Understanding the symptoms of generational trauma
Many times, people experiencing generational trauma may not explicitly be aware it’s happening or even talk about it. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms and how generational trauma presents.
Remember, generational trauma is a systemic issue. This means that the person who experienced the trauma coped with their emotions in a specific way and developed a trauma response that helped them manage their lives while they were going through that trauma. They may not have had the help they needed to cope in a healthy way with oppression, violence, or abuse, because the coping strategies that help us survive a situation are often not the same skills that will help us cope over the long-term.
As a result, behavior, adaptive to the initial trauma, is passed down across generations. Sometimes, this is referred to as survival mode. The American Psychological Association explains this further:
Trauma psychologist Elena Cherepanov, PhD, of Cambridge College in Boston, has been examining how survivors’ initial reactions to an event may affect future generations—a topic outlined in her upcoming book, tentatively titled “Understanding the Transgenerational Legacy of Totalitarian Regimes: Paradoxes of Survivorship.” Living under such difficult, oppressive circumstances, she surmises, can lead parents to formulate fear-based “survival messages” that they pass on to their children and grandchildren—ideas like “Don’t ask for help—it’s dangerous.” While the messages may have initially helped people stay alive, in the present they are often irrelevant and may even increase people’s interpersonal vulnerability. Fear of personal disclosure and not trusting mental health care providers, for example, “is exactly why it is so hard for trauma survivors to seek and accept support,” says Cherepanov, who is comparing these messages in Russian and American samples.
So, what are some of the signs of generational trauma? They can include:
- Panic attacks
- Hypervigilance (excessive attention to the possibility of danger)
- Mood dysregulation (trouble managing emotional responses)
Healthline also mentions these symptoms:
- A sense of a shortened future
- A sensitive fight-or-flight response
- Issues with self-esteem and self-confidence
You may be experiencing signs of generational trauma that aren’t listed here, such as behavior patterns or reactions that do not fit the demands of the situation that prompted them. Talking about them with a therapist can help you process them and start treatment.
Treatment for generational trauma: Take care of yourself
Whether you’re experiencing personal trauma or intergenerational trauma, there are treatments available that can help you heal. You don’t have to go through it alone.
While generational trauma isn’t formally encoded in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, it is widely known among mental health professionals that trauma influences our daily lives. There are many strategies and coping skills that can help you process and heal.
Given the subtlety of intergenerational trauma, treatment can often be more nuanced or longer-lasting than with other presenting concerns. Stay on track with your treatment plan with Brightside’s tools, check-ins, and reminders.