Intergenerational trauma: When our children feel our pain.
Is it possible to pass down trauma to the next generation? Research says the answer is yes. This means our parent’s trauma affects us and our trauma affects our children. It is theorized that effects of a person’s individual trauma or a collective community’s trauma can be passed down to the next generations.
The question of intergenerational trauma has been explored in the world of mental health for decades, with two methods of transmission being theorized. Studies in this area as far back as the 1960s have focused on participants who were the descendants of people who have survived horrific events such as the Holocaust and other genocides, famines, slavery, environmental disasters, survivors of torture and terror attacks. Many of these studies found that children and grandchildren of the Holocaust and the Dutch Hunger Winter, in which 20,000 people starved to death as Nazi retaliation, exhibited higher rates of both mental health issues and physical issues.
Looking at this body of research, combined with other trauma research, there are two things we know. Basically it comes down to “nature” and “nurture”, working together to create vulnerabilities in the children of those with trauma experiences. First, we know trauma changes our genes. This means if a person or community experiences trauma before conceiving children, the genes passed down to future children will be the “traumatized” genes. This is the “nature” part, the biological effects of trauma we inherit. This makes kids more vulnerable to developing mental health issues and physical health issues, like diabetes, heart conditions, and obesity in severe cases of malnutrition or stress experienced by the traumatized ancestors.
The second thing we know is that there are behaviors that are passed down as a form of intergenerational trauma. This is the “nurture”. Whether the parents trauma impacts their ability to parent or the parents’ coping skills, behavior plays a big part.There are several different ways that generational trauma is passed down behaviorally. The Zur Institute suggests a variety of ways behavioral transmission of intergenerational trauma may occur.
Children experience vicarious trauma from their parents. Children learn how to interact with the world by observing their parents. A parent doesn’t have to tell their child about their trauma for their descendants to feel the impact. For example, a survivor of a famine may hoard food later in life, having learned that this could be life saving later on. Children witnessing this with or without the context of their parent’s trauma history may also hoard food. In extreme scenarios, this could develop into compulsive hoarding of food.
Children are also very intuitive and may attempt to compensate for their parent’s or ancestor’s experiences. This can be seen in children of slaves, such as Daniel Smith, who grew up hearing his father’s stories about the whipping post and lynching tree in the center of the plantation community his father grew up in, and grew up to be a army medic in the korean war and a social worker and activist for civil rights and the needy.
There is the possibility that a traumatic experience has an impact on parental attachment. If a person experiences emotional numbing, depression, or cognitive distortions, they have limited ability to form attachment bonds or to reinforce attachment bonds with children. It’s known that a child’s attachment strength is related to how well they can bounce back from traumatic experiences.
The messages a parent sends about their traumatic experience will shape how their children and generations after see the world. For generations central and south americans, south and east asians, middle eastern and africans have been encouraged by their elders to pursue a more anglo, a fairer skinned look, and as a result millions of women bleach their skin, straighten their hair, and go under the knife to pursue caucasian features. Children are taught to mistrust the government by hearing stories from parent who fled government endorsed genocide.
Since intergenerational trauma can impact our genes, descendants are vulnerable genetically and through learned behaviors. This secondary trauma can leave children more likely than other children to experience, to varying degrees, depression, anxiety, substance use, prenatal malnutrition, among others. Intergenerational trauma may look like other disorders so, as always, culturally humble services are crucial. Culture is entwined with race and ethnicity but on a micro level deals with our family and community customs and values. Consider the methods of behavioral transmissions of trauma discussed above. A person may have learned compulsive behaviors from a traumatized parent and if a therapist must explore the family history enough to understand the cultural origins of this family's behaviors.
Written by: Gissell Reyes, Ma, Ma, LAC, NCC