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Intergenerational Trauma: How Trauma Can Be Inherited

Intergenerational trauma has become more well-known and well-understood over the years. The growing knowledge around this issue can help parents and children not only heal but also break the cycle of trauma, becoming “cycle breakers.”    

To best understand intergenerational trauma, the symptoms to look out for, and how you, the parent, and your child can help yourselves and future generations, we spoke to Shyanne Anthony, clinical therapist at Calo Programs, an Embark Behavioral Health residential program in Lake Ozark, Missouri.

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

So, what is intergenerational trauma? Intergenerational trauma is trauma that’s been passed down between generations. It can also be referred to as transgenerational trauma, multigenerational trauma, or inherited trauma because a traumatic event can affect multiple generations, even if the trauma survivor’s descendants no longer deal with the initial issue that caused the trauma. 

Intergenerational trauma can be caused by a wide range of circumstances or events, such as racial trauma, systemic oppression, separation of family members, or experiencing or even witnessing abuse. This is because when someone experiences a traumatic event, it could affect their relationship skills, personal behavior, and attitudes and beliefs in ways that shape their interactions with future generations, possibly affecting those future generations’ own relationship skills, personal behaviors, and attitudes and beliefs. 

Types of intergenerational trauma

Multigenerational trauma can result from multiple sources, such as oppression, abuse, adoption, or any type of trauma that has been passed down from generation to generation. It’s important to note that adoption itself is not generally the source of trauma. The disruption in the caregiving relationships that occurs when a child is relinquished can create a traumatic event.  

Common types of multigenerational trauma are historical trauma and collective trauma. 

Historical trauma

Historical trauma is a cumulative and multigenerational trauma tied to a major event, such as the Holocaust, which affects cultural, racial, or ethnic groups, according to Anthony. It’s felt across generations, and some may not understand the symptoms they experience because the historic events happened to those before them, but the effects still pass down.   

Collective trauma

Collective trauma is trauma that affects a large group of people, potentially an entire society. For example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks shattered the lives of people around the world, and later generations still feel the impact of this inherited trauma.   

Examples of Intergenerational Trauma

When it comes to inherited trauma, examples include:  

  • Racism.  
  • Substance use.  
  • Relational trauma
  • War, combat, or terrorism.  
  • Forced separation from family.  
  • School-related violence
  • Famine. 
  • Domestic violence.  
  • Disasters.  
  • Pandemics.  
  • Recessions.  
  • Forced relocations.  
  • Poverty.  
  • Police brutality.  
  • Loss of loved ones.  
  • Discrimination.

What Are the Symptoms of Intergenerational Trauma?

There are a few different intergenerational trauma symptoms you can look for in your child. Anthony noted that sometimes, youths might not even be aware they’re experiencing any symptoms. Instead, they may say, “My body is making me do this,” and you’ll need to dig deeper to see when and why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling.  

Common intergenerational trauma symptoms are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and physiological stress. 

PTSD

Intergenerational trauma and PTSD can be connected, as this disorder can follow a traumatic event. It’s important to note, however, that as a child develops, especially during puberty, they can become more emotional than usual. Anthony therefore recommended consulting with a mental health professional and using empathy and curiosity to try to understand whether your child is experiencing emotions that are part of a normal developmental stage or post-traumatic stress disorder related to inherited trauma.   

PTSD symptoms include: 

  • Anxiety.  
  • Loss of interest in hobbies. 
  • Negative thoughts. 
  • Feeling isolated. 

Anxiety

When it comes to intergenerational trauma and anxiety, Anthony said this is another area where you may need to use empathy and curiosity to understand the why behind the anxiety, especially if your child is feeling pressure in school. If they’re not having difficulty in class, you can look for where the anxiety takes place, such as in other public places, like a grocery store. You may notice pacing, increased fidgeting, or excessive talking.  

If your child has never been anxious in that setting before, it could be a signal that intergenerational trauma has surfaced. This is largely because when the brain’s formed pathways identify a trigger related to this type of trauma, it creates a physiological effect. Your child’s anxiety can also be related to other underlying issues, such as peers or change. This is a great time to sit down with your child and use that empathy and curiosity to get to the deeper issue. 

Anxiety symptoms include: 

  • Pervasive worry.  
  • Headaches. 
  • Stomachaches. 
  • Trouble sleeping.

Depression

If you’re wondering “Is depression generational?”, it can be. Just as trauma can pass down from one generation to the next, so can depression. As was the case with PTSD and anxiety, Anthony recommended using curiosity to understand the root of depression and consulting a mental health professional when depression symptoms arise. One way you could use curiosity is to ask open-ended questions while doing an activity together to see if you can identify patterns that may be causing symptoms.  

Depression symptoms include: 

  • Mood swings. 
  • Behavior changes. 
  • Negative changes in well-being. 

Physiological stress

Physiological stress can show up in multiple ways and can be a response to many different situations. Sometimes, your child may not even be sure why they’re experiencing physical symptoms, as their inherited DNA rather than a specific situation or conversation could be triggering those symptoms.  

“This is where the intergenerational trauma has left what we call a ‘chemical marker’ on a person’s genes, which is then passed down,” Anthony said. “It creates this physiological symptom or response to things that we don’t consider to be common among people.” 

Physiological stress symptoms include: 

  • Muscle tension.  
  • Shaking. 
  • Trembling. 
  • Rapid heart rate. 

Break the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma and Heal

Teen suffering from intergenerational trauma connects with a therapist to heal.
Teen suffering from intergenerational trauma connects with a therapist to heal.

According to Anthony, when it comes to breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma, cycle breakers usually feel like the black sheep or odd one out because there’s a disconnect within the family. Some family members may resist acknowledging a traumatic event has happened, while others are able to acknowledge it and ready to begin the healing journey.  

Below are tips for you and your child as you work through the process of breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma and healing from the trauma itself.  

1. Acknowledge the trauma and symptoms.

Acknowledging the trauma and symptoms of intergenerational trauma can be tricky, according to Anthony, but with the right approach, your family can begin the healing process. For you, the parent, you must first realize you aren’t broken. You’re a cycle breaker for your family and future generations.  

“One of the most important things we can do in acknowledging that trauma and acknowledging the symptoms, especially as a parent, is providing yourself empathy,” Anthony said.  

For your child, if you think they’re experiencing inherited trauma, keep in mind they may not understand the full scope of what’s happening. You may need to help them identify any symptoms they’re experiencing and acknowledge the trauma, and you may need a mental health professional’s help during this process. Showing empathy to your child is also important. 

2. Don’t indirectly pass it on to the next generation.

If you don’t believe your child is experiencing inherited trauma now, you’ll need to take steps to ensure they don’t experience it later. For example, if you have a strong negative reaction to something your child says or does because it reminds you of the trauma you once experienced, you should apologize as soon as possible. You could say something like, “I’m sorry for how I reacted. I’ll try not to react that way again. Do you have any feedback for how I could have handled it differently?” 

3. Connect and communicate with supportive groups and individuals.

Support groups with therapists who specialize in multigenerational trauma are much more common now than they were 10 years ago. Connecting and communicating with other parents can help you overcome different aspects of intergenerational trauma, which can be a huge relief, especially if you connect with people who are dealing with the same challenges you are, according to Anthony.  

If your child is experiencing multigenerational trauma, Anthony recommended bringing them to family-oriented support groups. By doing so, everyone feels part of the healing process. 

4. Be aware of how it exists in our society and lives.

As society has shifted and changed, there’s been a bigger emphasis on sharing more openly about mental health struggles. You may see others talking freely in social situations or even with the media about their traumatic experiences. This can be reassuring for your family, helping you realize you’re not alone in feeling the effects of inherited trauma. It could also open up conversations at home, providing everyone the opportunity to feel seen and heard by the people closest to them. 

5. Seek treatment for intergenerational trauma.

Addressing intergenerational trauma in therapy is important, as it can help your family go beyond the surface level of your issues. Anthony described it as going after weeds that have deep roots and then pulling up the weeds once and for all. Seeking treatment for intergenerational trauma in therapy — which can include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy — will help guide the route your family takes. 

If you’re feeling guilty for passing trauma that happened to a generation before yours down to your child, Anthony said to remember that the initial trauma was not your fault.  

Intergenerational Trauma: Moving Forward

Understanding and addressing multigenerational trauma can be difficult, but acknowledging what happened and getting treatment when needed provides an opportunity to heal not only your family but also the generations that follow. Although you can’t rewrite history, you can move toward a healthier future and even break the cycle of inherited trauma. 

“As you focus on breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma and changing the narrative, don’t forget to pick up your intergenerational wisdom,” Anthony said. “And remember that although trauma can be passed down through generations, so can healing.” 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.