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Intergenerational Trauma and the Promise of Healing

Our ancestors may affect us more than we think.

Key points

  • Research suggests that trauma may be passed down to one's descendants.
  • Resilience can also be passed down to the next generation.
  • People are both hurt and healed through relationships.
Keira Burton/Pexels
Source: Keira Burton/Pexels

One of the gifts of therapy is being able to understand one’s life within context. To begin to see the seemingly random occurrences of pain, poor personal choices, and disappointing relationships as a coherent narrative. Perhaps the most important task of therapy is to help a client see that their lives make sense. I have found that helping clients understand intergenerational trauma is key to helping them make sense of what may feel like fragmented pieces of their story.

Intergenerational trauma

Trauma occurs when a person suffers intense emotional pain or a threat to their life or sense of safety to such an extent that it overwhelms their ability to cope. We often think of trauma as occurring from catastrophic or violent events. But researchers have found that daily accumulations of stress, like repeated experiences of racism, can result in traumatic symptoms that are detrimental to one’s physical, mental, and emotional health.

In the past 10 years, a number of studies have shown that trauma is passed down generationally through both interpersonal interactions between parent and child as well as through the genes of traumatized parents. We’ve known for some time that if a child is raised by parents or caregivers with high rates of what is known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, the child is likely to also experience greater adversity. But more recently, scientists have discovered genetic links between parents, both mothers and fathers, who were traumatized and their children.


Epigenetics is the term used to describe the altering of one’s DNA due to environmental effects. As a teenager in the 90s, I recall teachers talking about the nature versus nurture debate, the question of how much of who we are today is shaped by our nature, the genes which we inherit, or the environments in which we were nurtured. Studies in epigenetics have shown that there is a complex interaction between our DNA and the way the environment around us can either activate some genes or suppress others. Researchers have discovered that these altered genes can be passed on to one’s children through the genetic code of both the father and mother through sperm and in the uterus.

Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a trauma expert, and professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has compared the genes of Holocaust survivors and their children with Jewish parents and children who were living outside of Europe during the Holocaust. She found that the hormone cortisol, which helps regulate emotions and stress, had been altered in the Holocaust survivors and their children. This was not the case for Jews who lived outside of Europe during the Holocaust.

Dr. Yehuda has found similar gene alteration in the children of war veterans as well as women who were in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy during 9/11. She found that the children of veterans and women who were pregnant during 9/11 were significantly more likely to have gene alteration, which made them more likely to suffer from traumatic symptoms. In the words of Jeremiah, the prophet, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

Research is divided on whether the grandchildren of trauma survivors are significantly impacted. But at least one recent study has shown that both the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were much more likely to suffer from secondary trauma than Jewish children and grandchildren of persons who were not Holocaust survivors. This was especially true for the descendants of survivors for whom the Holocaust had a central defining role in their life, shaping their personal identity and the lens through which they view the world. This study did not examine the genes of the survivors or their descendants. The trauma experienced by the third generation may have been a result of being raised by parents who experienced the emotional pain of being raised by fathers and mothers who experienced such atrocities.

Trauma expert Dr. Robort Stolorow has said that trauma occurs when “intense emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held.” This is perhaps the most devastating aspect of intergenerational trauma. It is difficult for a parent to help a child process their pain if the parent hasn’t processed their own. Unless healing has occurred, parents who have been traumatized may not be able to provide the relational home in which their child’s pain can be held. Understanding intergenerational trauma can help us empathize with our parent’s deficiencies and our own.

Relationships Heal

The good news is that researchers have found that adults outside of the home, such as mentors, coaches, pastors, teachers, and school counselors, can have a healing impact on the life of children who suffer adversity. Researchers from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child have found that “the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” This means that we have the resources we need within our communities, and once the healing begins, it, too, can be passed down to the next generation.

Dr. Yehuda and other scholars stress that we need to view both epigenetics and intergenerational trauma as adaptive. Furthermore, we inherit not just trauma symptoms from our parents and perhaps grandparents, but our resilience is also passed down through stories, through examples of fortitude, and quite possibly through our genes. We now know that genetic changes due to adversity are reversible. The past is not always prologue.

In other words, your family’s past is not your destiny. Just as trauma can alter one’s genes, healing can occur and be passed on to the next generation. Researchers continue to find resilience in oppressed groups, such as the resilience of Black persons during COVID despite the inequitable impact of COVID and the racial trauma of 2020. I suspect this has much to do with the relational-collectivist cultures that most oppressed people groups cultivate and sustain. As I often remind my clients, people are most often hurt through relationships and healed through relationships.


Chan, J. C., Nugent, B. M., & Bale, T. L. (2018). Parental advisory: Maternal and paternal stress can impact offspring neurodevelopment. Biological Psychiatry, 83(10), 886–894.

Greenblatt_Kimron, L., Shrira, A., Rubinsteign, T., & Palgi, Y. (2021). Event centrality and secondary traumatization among Holocaust survivors' offspring and grandchildren: A three-generation study. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 81, 102401.

Yehuda, R. & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: Putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(3), 243-257.

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