Transgenerational trauma is a term describing the mental, emotional and psychological issues people pass down to their descendants. The theory isn’t clinically proven, but there is growing evidence that people from many backgrounds suffer from transgenerational trauma.
You might even have some symptoms without even realizing it. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of transgenerational trauma — including key points of research, real-world examples and potential strategies for breaking the cycle.
The History Behind Transgenerational Trauma
The first known writing about transgenerational trauma appeared in the journal “Canada’s Mental Health” in 1966. Psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff and her colleagues documented high rates of psychological stress in the children of Holocaust survivors. This study wasn’t meant to prove the existence of transgenerational trauma, but they found evidence for it nonetheless.
Although they had a small sample size, these findings revealed a new concept that differentiated from historical or collective trauma. These types of trauma occur when a community experiences a tragic event together and the people internalize their shared suffering as part of the group identity.
In the case of transgenerational trauma, children and grandchildren can also suffer even though they didn’t experience the event firsthand. Rakoff’s research laid the groundwork for future studies on the descendants of people who experienced great suffering.
The greatest compilation of evidence to date is a 2017 review of 20 studies on children of war or displacement survivors in the Journal of Immigrant Minority Health. This review found eight of the studies showed strong negative psychiatric, psychosocial or behavioral effects in the survivors’ offspring. Two studies showed no differences while the rest had mixed results.
Here are some of the most well-researched historical examples of groups who experience transgenerational trauma.
The largest body of research around transgenerational trauma focuses on the families of Holocaust survivors. Psychologists have observed the trauma through many different behaviors and various interviews in a clinical setting.
Dr. Yael Danieli — co-founder of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children — made many interesting findings in the 1980s. She observed a high rate of specific behavioral patterns, including overprotectiveness toward their parents, immature dependency on their parents, an irrational desire for control and an obsession with Holocaust history.
Fast forward to 2017, Danieli and her colleagues gathered an inventory of 191 adult children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Of this inventory, 35% had generalized anxiety disorder, 26% had experienced a major depressive episode and 14% had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Descendants of Slaves
The descendants of enslaved people — particularly the Black American population — have also shown signs of transgenerational trauma. One study from the Delaware Journal of Public Health showed slavery could be a key contributor to the disproportionate rates of anxiety, depression and high blood pressure among this demographic.
A 2020 article in Social Science Information also observed epigenetic changes due to chronic stress and nutrient deficiencies from enslaved Black Americans. This research shows transgenerational trauma isn’t just psychological but can also become ingrained in DNA.
Descendants of Native tribes in Canada and the United States have shown behaviors that could link to transgenerational trauma. For example, a 2019 study from Health Services Research found 15% of Native people didn’t seek health care services for fear of discrimination. As a result, they’re more likely to have poor mental and physical outcomes.
How Transgenerational Trauma Spreads
Transgenerational trauma doesn’t automatically spread from parent to child. Not every descendant of an enslaved person or Holocaust survivor is born with internalized trauma. On the contrary — the trauma usually develops throughout the person’s childhood and manifests in various behaviors.
The main way people develop transgenerational trauma is through their unique upbringing. If an ancestor survived a terrible event, their story becomes an irrevocable part of the family dynamic. All the survivor’s loved ones empathize with their suffering and grief, and may develop their own trauma as a result, even if the survivor has long since passed away.
Say you had a relative who served in World War II. You might not have experienced the horrors of combat, but simply imagining a loved one in that situation can induce great stress. The negative effects of this thought process amplify when your entire family, community or country experiences a tragedy — hence the greater transgenerational trauma among historically oppressed groups.
Researchers of transgenerational trauma have coined the term “psychological transference” to describe the relationship between traumatized parents and their children. A parent with unresolved trauma or unhealthy coping mechanisms can instill the same behaviors in their children through everyday interactions without realizing it.
For example, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health conducted a study on the families impacted by the 1938 Dersim Massacre in Turkey. Although only the first generation lived through the tragedy, all three exhibited PTSD symptoms.
Further interviews found the grandparents had passed their reactions to the massacre down to their children and grandchildren by telling stories and exhibiting erratic behavior. Instead of moving on from the experience, they kept it alive through their descendants and created a cycle of trauma.
Epigenetic change is the third and most interesting way transgenerational trauma can spread. Studies of other animal species have clearly shown environmental adversity causes molecular changes in their offspring. This phenomenon isn’t considered evolutionary because evolution implies a change that improves the species’ survival ability.
The best study of epigenetic change in humans comes from the Journal of the World Psychiatry Association. Researchers Rachel Yehuda and Amy Lehrner found the stress hormone cortisol was less responsive in children of traumatized mothers. Preborn and newborn infants of abused mothers also showed lower cortisol levels, which is a common symptom of PTSD.
Potential Therapeutic Approaches
The consequences of transgenerational trauma are impossible to predict on an individual level. Thus, psychiatrists can’t come up with a clinically proven therapeutic approach.
Some people handle the inherited trauma without issue, while others can develop debilitating anxiety, depression and substance abuse problems. Here are some treatment methods with the potential to help people with transgenerational trauma recover and break the cycle.
The first step in alleviating any sort of trauma is identifying the underlying causes. If you or a loved one has shown the aforementioned behaviors — anxiety, depression, PTSD, controlling behavior, overprotectiveness, obsession with historical events — then you should seek help to address these behaviors in a clinical setting.
Simply addressing the anxiety or depression with typical treatments such as therapy and medication doesn’t cut to the heart of the issue. Medical professionals must recognize transgenerational trauma as the root cause, which is a challenging task. Patients aren’t always honest about their feelings and might not even realize they have transgenerational trauma.
One potential way to identify this type of trauma is by examining the patient’s family history and observing similar traits in older relatives. If a patient shows the same behaviors as a grandparent who survived the Holocaust, then psychiatrists have established a possible link. They can do the same thing with patients belonging to other historically oppressed groups.
Outside of a clinical setting, families with transgenerational trauma can rely on each other to heal their inherited wounds. They might even have to stage an intervention for relatives with an unhealthy attachment to the past. This therapeutic method can be especially difficult for male family members because talking about their feelings can be perceived as a sign of weakness.
However, masculine coping mechanisms such as bottling up your emotions or deriving pride from hardship only exacerbate the problem. Transgenerational trauma isn’t something you can ignore and taking fulfillment from struggle is the main reason families develop cycles of trauma in the first place. You must avoid these two extreme coping mechanisms.
Since most men are hesitant to approach these topics, women must often take the lead in family therapy sessions. Their strengths as caregivers and nurturers can shine through in this setting, leading to great healing.
Community Support Networks
Similarly, there must be support networks throughout communities affected by transgenerational trauma. It took multiple generations for the trauma to solidify, so it requires a multigenerational effort to dissolve. These networks are especially important for communities still overcoming oppression today.
Cultures either grow or decline from hardship — they never stay the same. The only way for a group of people to overcome a tragic past is by sharing the pain and getting stronger together. If you let the trauma weigh you down, your descendants will inherit the cycle. Today’s young adults have a responsibility to break the cycle for the sake of their children.
Transgenerational Trauma Isn’t Permanent
Even though you might have inherited transgenerational trauma, it doesn’t have to be permanent. You can take steps with trained professionals, family members and your community to heal your psyches, break the cycle and make life better for the next generation. It may take more time for some people to heal, but they can still contribute to a healed future.
Jack Shaw is a senior writer and editor at Modded, where he passionately explores the intricate connections between physical health, mental well-being, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. With a keen eye for detail and a knack for crafting engaging content, Jack’s articles offer valuable insights into living a balanced and fulfilling life.