What is that one thing you can think of passed down to you or your parents from your ancestors? It could be stories, heirlooms, or genetic traits. Recent studies suggest that even trauma can pass down through the generations. If you have someone in your family history that bears the scars of past trauma like racism, slavery, sex trafficking, or being a survivor of the holocaust, such an experience gets transmitted from one generation to the next.
What is Transgenerational Trauma?
Transgenerational trauma is the physical and psychological effects of trauma from past generations affecting subsequent generations. This trauma transfers from the first generation of the survivors to the second and further generations of their offspring via a complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanism. Hence, most victims of transgenerational trauma have no direct experience of the original trauma.
How Transgenerational Trauma Manifests in Families
Transgenerational trauma may manifest itself socially, biologically, emotionally, or mentally as follows: –
- Hyper-vigilance because you may have a distrust of the world
- Isolation, emotional numbing, and depersonalization
- Impaired parental function, which shows up as overprotectiveness or unclear boundaries
- Chronic sorrow and separation anxiety
- Poor communication skills
- Chronic fear of danger
- Pressure for educational or career achievements
- Unresolved or complicated grief triggering anger and self-destructive behaviors
In addition, teens and school-going children undergoing transgenerational trauma may experience low self-esteem, have disciplinary issues at school, drop out or cut classes, and record poor grades.
Families struggling with transgenerational trauma tend to: –
- Dismiss any talk of feelings as a weakness
- Become overprotective of their children and seniors
- Develop a neutral emotional response to tragic events
- Have trust issues and engage in unnecessary conflicts with other families
What Does Science Say?
Most scientific studies on transgenerational trauma agree that any extreme and prolonged stress on a parent could have adverse psychological effects on their children or grandchildren. The parents may be former prisoners of war, combat veterans, victims of colonial suppression, clerical abuse in religious organizations, totalitarian political control, and terrorism.
Here are four examples of communities affected by transgenerational trauma: –
#1: Holocaust Survivors
Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Vivian Rakoff was the first person to identify and document transgenerational trauma. In 1966, Vivian and her colleagues were researchers at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. Here, they studied the long-lasting consequences of the holocaust on its survivors and descendants.
They recorded high psychological distress rates amongst the children of the holocaust survivors. Later studies would discover that even grandchildren of holocaust survivors ended up in psychiatric care referrals, with trauma symptoms like PTSD, depression, and clinical anxiety.
#2: The Stolen Generation of the Aboriginal People
Thousands of lighter-skin-toned aboriginal children grew up without knowing their families. The kids were forcefully taken from their families and placed in orphanages run by missionaries. Some of the kids were barely a year old. They spent most of their childhood working while undergoing physical and emotional mistreatment.
Many described it as Australia’s attempt at genocide and the ultimate survival of the indigenous people. Today, the children of the stolen generation of the aboriginal people still carry the scars of transgenerational trauma. Some live in distress and struggle with attachment and disconnection from extended families.
#3: Rwanda Genocide Survivors
The Rwanda Civil War between April 7th and July 15th, 1994, claimed the lives of up to 800,000 Tutsis, a minority ethnic group. Studies of the Rwanda post-genocide generation indicate that children born to Tutsi mothers during and immediately after the genocide developed depression and traumatic disorders. The lasting imprints of the 1994 genocide are evident in the survivors, former prisoners, and their descendants.
#4: Systematic Racism and Over-policing of the Black Communities
During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Europeans built the foundations of America by dehumanizing Africans. They used mental, spiritual, and physical warfare to integrate white supremacy into the violence. And they skewed psychology, religion, and science to justify this treatment.
For example, in 1851, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright came up with Drapetomania. It refers to a supposed mental illness describing enslaved Africans that tried to run away. Eventually, black communities developed trauma responses to maintain survival.
However, instead of short-term responses, the families have integrated them into their culture and passed them from one generation to the next under the guise of values and traditions.
Today, there are cries of systematic racism and over-policing amongst the black communities. And more families are struggling with divorce, alcohol and substance abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence. And there’s a high incarceration rate in the black communities.
Addressing Transgenerational Trauma
Note that later victims of transgenerational trauma may fail to recognize its effects. Others never acknowledge, discuss, or address it for fear of stigmatization. That way, they may never call it out or seek help. Instead, they struggle with mental health issues and continue passing down the trauma to their offspring.
Anyone undergoing transgenerational trauma should seek help to break the cycle. Otherwise, parents will continue to pass triggers to their children, affecting future generations.
#1: Community Healing and Reconciliation
Most families undergoing transgenerational trauma stay quiet about the traumatic events for fear of stigmatization. Start by having productive discussions with family members for healing and reconciliation. In the aftermath of the Rwanda Civil War, most survivors rebuilt their lives by joining survivor support groups, creating and preserving memorial sites, and educating the next generation on the dangers of hate and extremism.
#2: Seeking Help from a Family Therapist
Families undergoing generational trauma should work with a family therapist to identify the trauma patterns existing in the family. Likewise, children struggling with mental health problems associated with this trauma should also work with a mental health specialist for recovery.
#3: Changing Parenting Styles
Often, parents who are victims or survivors of trauma have a protective parenting style that passes the trauma to their children. Here, the parents subconsciously teach their children unhealthy survival behaviors. Or, they may develop unhealthy relationship boundaries with their loved ones. This should change to avoid passing on the damage further.
Is your family dealing with trauma from your ancestors? Studies now show that parental traumatic experiences can reach subsequent generations. Yet, we can break the cycle of transgenerational trauma by investigating how these events of our shared past affect us today. More so, seeking professional help, changing parenting styles, and encouraging communication around healing and reconciliation can help families deal with the complex issues from the trauma.