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Multigenerational Trauma

Someone who has experienced trauma might struggle to feel calm in situations that are objectively safe due to anxiety that another traumatic event will occur. When this occurs, the trauma response can be harmful rather than adaptive.

Multigenerational Trauma

Our genetics do a great job of keeping us safe even if this does not mean keeping us happy. When genes are primed for stressful or traumatic events, they respond with greater resilience to those events, but this constant state of anticipating danger is stressful.

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring Holistic Psychologist Mariel Buqué, shares how you can stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Click below to listen now.

Inter-generational problems including oppression can often be found in families that have been traumatized in severe forms (e.g., sexual abuse, rape, murder, etc). This article will highlight some of the ways inter-generational trauma can affect younger generations and families.

Historical trauma refers to traumatic experiences or events that are shared by a group of people within a society, or even by an entire community, ethnic, or national group. Historical trauma meets three criteria: widespread effects, collective suffering, and malicious intent (2). Historical Trauma Response (HTR) can manifest as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, violence, and difficulty in emotional regulation (3)

Intergenerational trauma (sometimes referred to as trans- or multigenerational trauma) is defined as trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations. Intergenerational trauma may begin with a traumatic event affecting an individual, traumatic events affecting multiple family members, or collective trauma affecting larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups/populations (historical trauma).

Intergenerational trauma was first identified among the children of Holocaust survivors (4), but recent research has identified intergenerational trauma among other groups such as indigenous populations in North America and Australia (3)(5). In 1988, one study showed that children of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented in psychiatric referrals by 300% (6). The subjects were selected based on having at least one parent or grandparent who was a survivor.

Parents may transmit inborn genetic vulnerabilities triggered by their own traumatic experience or via parenting styles that have been impacted by their trauma (7). Survivors face many challenges when they are parents, including difficulty bonding to and creating healthy emotional attachments with their children. Yael Danieli categorized four adaptation styles amongst the families of survivors: Numb, Victim, Fighters, and Those Who Made It. Survivors who become numb seek silence by self-isolating, have a very low tolerance for stimulation of any kind, and are minimally involved in raising their children. Victims fear and distrust the outside world, try to remain inconspicuous, and are frequently depressed and quarrelsome. Fighters focus on succeeding at all costs and retaining an armor of strength, making them intolerant of weakness or self-pity. Those Who Made It are characterized by their pursuit of socio-economic success but also by the ways in which they intentionally distance themselves both from their experience of trauma and from other survivors (8).

Aboriginal communities in Canada suffered from sustained trauma. For generations, Canada tried to forcibly assimilate Aboriginal people by placing them in residential schools, removing children from their families, and generally attempting to eradicate their culture and traditions (5).

The effects of this prolonged trauma have impacted First Nations groups on individual and collective levels, including markedly high rates of depression and self-destructive behaviors compared to the non-Aboriginal population. One of the challenges for mental health professionals working with community members is to understand the effects of intergenerational trauma on their clients, including a well-earned mistrust in the ministrations of outsiders.

Mental health professionals are often unfamiliar with the history of those they seek to treat. Unrecognized and, therefore, unacknowledged traumatic events will go on to pose unique challenges for both client and clinician.

The Armenian Genocide, during which the Ottoman Turkish Empire massacred 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, is an example of historical trauma that has often been either minimized or denied outright. In fact, the mass murder of Armenians, Assyrian, Greek, and other Christian and religious minority populations of the Ottoman Empire between 1914 and 1923 has yet to be acknowledged as a genocide by the Turkish government (11). It can be especially challenging to cope with an injury while you are still fighting for its acknowledgment a century after it was inflicted. Additionally, due to this lack of formal recognition, Armenian survivors find it difficult to trust non-Armenian mental health professionals with their history and pain (12).

Dagirmanjian suggested narrative therapy as a treatment with Armenians (12). Narrative therapy allows survivors to embody and settle into their perception and view of themselves (11). Another important key to working with Armenians is understanding the way Armenians value family closeness. This trait has sometimes been misunderstood and even considered unhealthy by Western clinicians who have been trained to approach family therapy with the goal of promoting individuation (12). In general, it is crucial for the mental health professional to understand the cultural context of the person suffering from trauma, including intergenerational trauma, to provide the most effective and sensitive treatment.

In approaching survivors of historical trauma in which the intent was not only to inflict pain or kill but to demean and, ultimately, erase the identity of an entire people, the therapist must be aware that recovery requires the restoration of morale, identity, and purpose.

Maternal stress and trauma are associated with health consequences for both mother and child, including low birth weight, fetal growth, and preterm delivery (15). The effect of maternal stress and trauma translate into additional risks for the infant later in life, including hypertension, heart disease, Type II diabetes mellitus, and even cancer (16).

Epigenetics refers to the study of heritable changes in gene expression in response to behavioral and environmental factors that do not change the underlying DNA sequence. In other words, epigenetics is the study of inherited changes in phenotypical properties without a difference in the inherited genetic makeup. Recent studies demonstrate that traumatic events can induce genetic changes in the parents, which may then be transmitted to their children with adverse effects (17).

Intergenerational trauma may be transmitted through parenting behaviors, changes in gene expression, and/or other pathways that we have yet to understand fully. These may be biological, social, psychological, and/or a mixture of all three. As we trace these modes of transmission, practitioners will be better able to match interventions to specific factors that either propagate traumatic effects across generations or mitigate against their transmission. Different sources of intergenerational trauma will likely require different approaches. Innovative treatments for multigenerational trauma that borrow from indigenous cultures, acknowledge historical trauma, connect to group identity, and support survivors in finding meaning and purpose in their experience and that of their family and people are already providing practical tools for practitioners and point the way towards future progress.

(14) Marsh, T.N., Coholic, D., Cote-Meek, S. et al. Blending Aboriginal and Western healing methods to treat intergenerational trauma with substance use disorder in Aboriginal peoples who live in Northeastern Ontario, Canada. Harm Reduct J 12, 14 (2015).

Wonderful article. Trauma is so complex and should be considered in many different ways with lenses of culture, diversity, and in historical ways. I do agree with Tonya that his could have been stretched further to include more diversity to show other examples of how this is effecting us today. Thank you for your work here and I will plan to add this article in future posts at for trauma therapy or other related articles.

I have the same question as Tonya. Great article, but the most obvious incident in the US of unacknowledged historical trauma is slavery. Why was this not mentioned? I hope that you will do a revision and include this research. Thank you.

Transgenerational trauma is the psychological and physiological effects that the trauma experienced by people has on subsequent generations in that group. The primary modes of transmission are the uterine environment during pregnancy causing epigenetic changes in the developing embryo, and the shared family environment of the infant causing psychological, behavioral and social changes in the individual. The term intergenerational transmission refers to instances whereby the traumatic effects are passed down from the directly traumatized generation [F0] to their offspring [F1], and transgenerational transmission is when the offspring [F1] then pass the effects down to descendants who have not been exposed to the initial traumatic event - at least the grandchildren [F2] of the original sufferer for males, and their great-grandchildren [F3] for females.[1]

Collective trauma is when psychological trauma experienced by communities and identity groups is carried on as part of the group's collective memory and shared sense of identity. For example, collective trauma was experienced by Jewish Holocaust survivors and other members of the Jewish community at the time, and by the Indigenous Peoples of Canada during the Canadian Indian residential school system. When this collective trauma affects subsequent generations, it is called transgenerational trauma. For example, if Jewish people experience extreme stress or practice survivalism out of fear of another Holocaust, despite being born after the Holocaust, then they are experiencing transgenerational trauma.


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