July 29, 2022

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

By Liliia Chernytska

Abuse & Trauma

What have we inherited from our parents and grandparents in addition to eye color, height, tastes, and whimsical eccentricities? There are things that we inherit genetically, things that are the same such as eye color or temperament type, and there are things that we inherit in other ways, but they are just as real as genetic factors. What’s more, genes can change under the influence of various external factors, and those changes can be both good and bad.

In 1966, a clinician in Canada observed many children of Holocaust survivors, born after World War II (WWII), seeking treatment. In the 1990s, a greater exploration of the long-term effects of collective trauma in survivor families of genocides and mass traumas, from a global perspective appeared in the literature, and this research continues into the present. 

So, what exactly is this trauma that can travel between generations? Experts call this Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma.

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

 Transgenerational trauma involves a transfer of trauma from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations. Such trauma can include emotional reactions—for example, fear or helplessness—or even maladaptive behavioral patterns. On the other hand, intergenerational trauma denotes an exchange of trauma-related reactions between two proximate generations. Furthermore, historical, cultural, and collective traumas that connect with historical events can have an impact on social life and affect many people, but they do not necessarily have a transgenerational effect. Transgenerational trauma can affect a small number of people, or an entire group or community. 

At this point, you might be wondering about the conditions under which trauma travels between generations. Whether trauma travels has to do with the initial trauma victim and how they have responded to the traumatic events, as well as how they have dealt with this trauma. 

The most common consequences of transgenerational trauma are psychological changes in future generations regarding worldview, values, self-attitudes, and behavioral strategies. Consequences also include the ways a subsequent generation resolves daily problems and builds relationships. The descendants of a trauma survivor will show emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns that can be connected to the original trauma of the ancestor. 

Three Common Types of Generational Trauma Transmission

The first type of trauma transmission over generations is socio-cultural. It is a transfer of interactive and behavioral patterns, as well as worldview attitudes at interpersonal, cultural, and social levels through communication, socialization, observation/imitation, compassion, child treatment, and community rules. For example, you as a child growing up in a family, and the ways your parents communicate with you plant within you an understanding of the world and your place in it. How dangerous are certain situations for you? People who experience famine pass along to their children very specific attitudes toward food and the culture around food: fear of losing or not having food to eat, which they try to counteract by stockpiling reserves. As you grow up, this anxiety around food becomes part of your own experience, and you pass it along to your children. From a wider perspective, this transmission may be from the culture around you, not simply from your parents. 

The second type of generational trauma transmission is epigenetic transmission, where trauma is inherited by descendants. Such inheritance derives from the physical nervous system of parents who were exposed to traumatic events. 

The third type of generational trauma transmission involves the unconscious reproduction of parental behaviors and attitudes. That is, what was broadcast at the level of reactions, attitudes, and values, and transmitted to the subconscious level. Returning to the example of food and the anxiety and fears that accompanied this topic, the child sees and experiences the parent’s behaviors, and as a result, learns. Then she herself has anxiety and fears about this topic, which can be expressed in very different ways, from overeating to malnutrition.

The process of passing trauma from one generation to another is very complex, and we don’t know everything about it yet, but we don’t have to carry the trauma and the devastating effects of the pain of previous generations.

Is Intergenerational Trauma Reversible?

Of course, some things need to be faced and worked through, but in general, the process can be changed. Epigenetics works in both directions. Just as the environment affects the functioning of genes in a negative context, positive changes from the outside lead to good results from the inside. A therapist could help you start working with your worries and fears, rethinking your lifestyle and habits, and the process of transmitting the trauma can be stopped. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Optimum Joy!

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