Breaking the Chains of Generational Trauma
We don't have to pass down everything we inherit
Posted July 3, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Transgenerational trauma can have significant affects on individual and family systems.
- Open and honest communication can open up channels of healing and foster resilience amidst family adversity.
- Children of trauma survivors must be willing to work through their family's trauma in order to help break the cycle.
We know now that newborns don’t enter into the world with a clean slate. Their emotional history begins even before they are conceived.
All the eggs a woman will carry form in her ovaries while she is a fetus in her mother's womb. In other words, when your mother was in your grandmother’s womb, she carried, at that time, the egg that eventually became you. This means that a part of you, your mother, and your grandmother all shared the same biological environment. In a sense, you were exposed to the emotions and experiences of your grandmother even before you were conceived.
We don't just inherit our skin tone, the color of our eyes, or the broadness of our shoulders from our parents. We can also inherit our family's story, narrative, and views about life. Within our family tree, we may represent the green, budding leaves, but the very branches that pulsate life into us are grounded in our ancestors' deeply embedded roots. There's a part of them that continues to live on within us, whether we are aware of this or not. While it is a noble thing to carry on our family's legacy, there can also be unresolved conflict and baggage to sort through and clean up.
Transgenerational trauma refers to a type of trauma that does not end with the individual. Instead, it lingers and gnaws through one generation to the next. Families with a history of unresolved trauma, depression, anxiety, and addiction may continue to pass maladaptive coping strategies and distrustful views of life onto future generations. In this way, one can repeat the same patterns and attitudes of former generations, regardless of whether they are healthy or not.
Transgenerational trauma isn't something that can be easily pinpointed. It is often covert, undefined, and subtle, surfacing through family patterns and forms of hypervigilance, mistrust, anxiety, depression, issues with self-esteem, and other negative coping strategies. We also know that trauma can have a significant affect on the immune system and may contribute to the generational curse of autoimmune diseases and other chronic illnesses.
While generational trauma can affect us all, those at the highest risk are in families that have experienced significant forms of abuse, neglect, torture, oppression, and racial disparities. Studies have explored the effects of transgenerational trauma on Holocaust survivors, the Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the displacement of American Indians, and slavery of African Americans, among others (1). While some results are mixed on how trauma is manifested, many studies uncovered higher rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD in trauma survivors and their children.
What’s less clear is how this trauma is actually transmitted from one generation to the next. Trauma itself can contribute to poverty, compromised parenting, diminished attachment, chronic stress, and unstable living environments, which can directly impact children and their development.
Elena Cherepanov, a trauma psychologist, examines how survivors’ initial reactions to an event can affect future generations. When parents live under oppressive circumstances, for example, they can develop “survival messages” (e.g. “don’t ask for help, it’s dangerous”) that may be taught and passed on from one generation to the next (1). While these messages may have helped protect earlier generations, they can cause later generations to have a fearful and distrustful outlook on life and towards helping professionals, further alienating the support that is needed to overcome the aftermath of the trauma itself. In addition, researchers are also exploring how the body itself may serve as a vehicle through epigenetics (2).
The Transmission of Resilience
Fortunately, trauma survivors and their descendants can help to reduce the impact of generational trauma on future generations. Just as traumatic experiences can be passed down from one generation to the next, so can the capacity for overcoming the trauma and building resilience.
For example, Braga et al. (2012) explored how open and loving communications styles between generations helped foster resilience and connectivity (3). When survivors of trauma openly tell their story and when descendants are able to deal with their parents’ traumatic past, new lines of healing communication open between them.
Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn’t Start With You, also encourages open dialogue between parents and children regarding the history of family trauma. He encourages parents to “Tell [your children] the terrible things that happened to you and whatever you know about what happened to your parents and your grandparents. They could be the unwitting recipients of painful feelings from the past. When you tell them what tragedies smolder in the family history, it can come as a great relief to them—especially if they make the connection that they’ve been carrying what belongs to you or to your parents or grandparents.”
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On the other hand, transgenerational trauma snowballs in families that do not speak of their traumatic experiences. Instead, these families keep the traumas a secret or continue to convey them in indirect or maladaptive ways.
Working Through the Trauma
If you are a parent, in addition to opening up communication with your children (and even grandchildren) about your lived experiences, it's also important to work through the generational traumas themselves. Trauma survivors can either repeat the cycle or generate a solution by creating a new narrative. This happens when family members speak up and work through any hurt, pain, or abuse from the past.
Children need to believe that they are safe and cared for by trusted adults. When core beliefs are muddled by their parents' mistrust, doubt, resentment and insecurity, children will learn to view the world from this perspective. This can hinder their ability to form secure and trusting relationships and develop a healthy sense of self-worth.
Here are some additional tips on how to break the cycle:
- Open up a conversation with your parents about their lived experiences and how they coped .
- Notice any embedded patterns, attitudes, or narratives from your family that you continue to portray.
- Talk through these areas with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist and consider an alternative way of coping or communicating.
- Cultivate a sense of empathy and compassion for your family and the struggles they endured. Despite their flaws, many our ancestors worked hard so that we could have a better life. This, too, should be celebrated and embraced.
- Recreate a new narrative that you want your children to embody and believe about their family, themselves, and the world.
1. DeAngelis, Tori. The Legacy of Trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come. American Psychological Association. [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2021 July 3]; 50(2). Available from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-trauma
2. Jawaid, Ali. Roszkowski, Martin. Mansuy, Isabelle. Transgenerational Epigenetics of Traumatic Stress. Volume 158. 2018. Pages 273-298. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187711731830053X
Braga, L. L., Mello, M. F., & Fiks, J. P. (2012). Transgenerational transmission of trauma and resilience: a qualitative study with Brazilian offspring of Holocaust survivors. BMC psychiatry, 12, 134. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-12-134