In the same way genetic characteristics can be passed on, many other characteristics can be passed on from one generation to the next. We can inherit trauma which can have a very deep impact on our lives. There is a part of our ancestors that live inside of us whether we know it or not. Positive inherited characteristics can help us survive and grow. Negative characteristics, such as trauma, can lead to harmful behavior and mental and physical health issues. If it is not repaired, it is repeated. Trauma changes you permanently and there is no “undoing it”. However, we can heal trauma, transmit resilience, and foster post-traumatic growth.
Families with a history of unresolved trauma will likely continue to pass along maladaptive coping strategies, abusive behavior, and distrustful views to future generations. Thus, the cycle of trauma continues.
Families at greatest risk for generational trauma have experienced abuse, neglect, torture, oppression, and racial disparity (slavery, discrimination, internalized racism). Historical trauma refers to generational trauma that is experienced by a specific cultural, racial, or ethnic group. Studies show that African American families, Holocaust survivors, Cambodians tortured and ravaged by the Khmer Rouge, Native Americans, and victims of the Rwandan genocide have significantly higher rates of:
Anxiety, Depression, PTSD/Trauma (heightened reactivity to stress) – In both survivors and their children.
ACES- Adverse Childhood Experiences:
Children can experience physical and emotional health issues from abuse or neglect, which are traumatizing. In addition, they can experience these same issues from growing up in a dysfunctional household. These are Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic experiences that happen before the age of 18 but last through adulthood. They can cause lasting mental and physical issues. Here are some common examples:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse – belittling, rejecting, ridiculing, blaming, threatening, isolating, restricting social interactions, denying the child an emotional response, ignoring for long periods of time
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Incarcerated relative
- Mental Illness – living with a mentally ill relative
- Domestic abuse
- Substance Use
- Chronic illness
Risk factors (above) can be offset by protective factors (stable home environment, attentive caregivers, physical safety, sense of love and security, and emotional support).
The effects of trauma can be widespread:
Anxiety. Depression. Trauma. Addiction. Low self-esteem. Mistrust. Shame. Negative coping strategies (substance use, denial, minimization). Unhealthy/negative parenting. Difficulty with relationships. Diminished attachment. Difficulty regulating emotions, especially aggression. Chronic stress. Compromised immune system and autoimmune disorders. Physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.
Negative parenting behavior can be a source of trauma as well. When parents have unresolved trauma, their parenting can be negatively impacted by depression, substance abuse, mental illness, and other conditions. Parents can become less attuned as parents and model negative coping skills. They may even become perpetrators of their own trauma as sexual abuse is often repeated in families for generations.
Children learn to view the world from their parents’ perspective – mistrust, doubt, resentment, and insecurity can be passed down in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This can impede a child’s ability to form secure and trusting relationships and develop healthy self-esteem.
- Effects of Trauma on Families:
- impaired self‐esteem
How Trauma is passed down:
- DNA modifications – changes the way genes are expressed causing higher susceptibility to trauma, stress, obesity, diabetes, etc. (i.e., how methylation increases or decreases RNA transcription)
- in utero, while the fetus is developing – extreme stress or nutritional deprivation leads to deficits in metabolism that can lead to disease
- sharing memories (vicarious trauma)
- cultural messages and patterns – i.e., not open to mental health treatment – don’t share family business
- cumulative emotional wounding – hurt people hurt people
- dominant family narratives- don’t ask for help, we are not quite as good as, code of silence, spinning the story
- parents bypassing or not coping with their trauma:
- through parenting practices
- through modeling of maladaptive coping mechanisms – denial, minimization, substance use
How To Heal Generational Trauma:
The goal is to create a new narrative – a new story that breaks the cycle of trauma and its outgrowth.
- Speak up about hurt, pain, and abuse from the past – share the trauma openly with your children and grandchildren. Include your parents and grandparents if possible. (age appropriately)
- Have a conversation with your parents about how they lived and coped
- Talk it through with a therapist, trusted friend, family member, or religious or spiritual guide
- Notice embedded patterns, attitudes, or narratives, especially those that continue to be active
- Have empathy and compassion for your family and the struggles they endured. Celebrate the hard work they performed to have a better life.
All of the healing activities listed above help build resilience. Resilience can also be passed down. Research shows that open and loving communication between (and within) generations builds resilience and connectivity. It can come as a great relief when these connections are made. On the other hand, generational trauma can snowball when trauma and its outgrowth are kept secret. Secrets occur in the form of denial, codes of secrecy and silence, minimization, and spinning the story. Only that which is fully bought into the light can fully heal.
Submitted by Holly Houston, Ph.D.