Throughout our families’ histories, some of our ancestors experienced traumatic events, or experiences that were deeply distressing. From national or global events like wars, slavery, or extreme hunger to more personal events like abuse in the home. The trauma our families experienced can be passed down to the next generations. This is called intergenerational trauma. Families can heal from intergenerational trauma, and the first step is to understand what it is and how it can impact us.
Research shows that trauma can be passed down through generations in a few different ways. Sometimes, the person who experienced the distressing event repeats the behaviors that caused their trauma. To try to protect themselves, some people who have experienced trauma might detach from their emotions, distance themselves from loved ones, minimize the experiences of other family members, or use other unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope. When we see these behaviors as children, many of us end up repeating them with our own children, creating an intergenerational cycle.
Trauma can also be passed down through the body. Research has found that traumatic events can leave a mark on our genes, which carry the information that determines our traits and characteristics, and affect our growth and development as children. Difficult times like losing a loved one, experiencing bias or discrimination, and other similar experiences can be hard on a child.
Most importantly, there are many ways to break this cycle; you can read more in our previous article. While every family experiences intergenerational trauma differently, some signs to look out for include:
Substance use disorders
Intense feelings of shame
An increased sense of vulnerability and helplessness
Dissociation, or feeling disconnected from thoughts, emotions, memories, and surroundings
Hypervigilance, or constantly searching for threats around you
Intrusive or unwanted thoughts
Difficulty with relationships and creating emotional attachments to others
Aggression or violence
Extreme reactions to stress
If you or someone you know has experienced intergenerational trauma, there are many different ways to heal and avoid passing that trauma to the next generation. We provide steps you can take to heal in this article. Healing from trauma is possible!
If you are able, speaking to a licensed therapist or counselor can help you and your family work through this trauma, and they can provide healthy ways to cope with it. We’ve provided some mental health resources for families to try.