Why We Need To Start Talking More About Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma

We often focus on how trauma impacts one’s well-being. In doing this, we may hone in on specific events, like sexual assault or a physical altercation, that influenced a specific individual. 

But intergenerational trauma can also affect entire groups of people. Similarly, this trauma can pass through these larger systems even if specific events don’t occur to each person. 

Unfortunately, such trauma rarely receives such recognition. Many people believe that events must happen directly to a person to have an impact. But research continues to prove that’s not the case. The effects of intergenerational and historical trauma can leave lasting effects that infiltrate from person to person. Let’s get into what you need to know.

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma refers to trauma that transcends into different family generations. Although the trauma will uniquely impact each person, the original trauma may trace back for several decades or more.

All family systems have some issues. Family members carry invisible pain throughout their lives. Depending on the severity of this pain, they pass some of it onto future generations unknowingly. 

For example, let’s say a father molests his son. The boy never speaks of the molestation, but he carries the feeling of unlovability and shame deep inside him. The boy grows up and gets married and has a son of his own. While he doesn’t molest his child, he continues to experience insatiable rage. He attempts to cope with his rage through a variety of methods: withdrawal from his family when stressed, substance use, and escaping through television. 

As a result, his young son often feels abandoned and unloved himself. When he needs his father, the father often balks, withdraws, or even lashing out. This son grows up with an internalized sense of self-esteem and passes on such traits to his children. The pattern ensues.

We know that mental illness can pass through families. Experts believe this phenomenon occurs from both genetic and environmental factors. If a child grows up with a mother who chronically feels anxious, she may grow to understand the world is unsafe and untrustworthy. She takes on that same anxiety and passes it to her children. 

Do Families Address Intergenerational Trauma? 

Oftentimes, no. Intergenerational trauma is often insidious and shameful. Family secrets, even when they’re toxic, maintain the homeostasis of a family. Changing this homeostasis can feel extremely threatening.

Usually, the discomfort occurs when one person realizes how their trauma stems from a larger picture. For example, they might recognize that they struggle with emotional regulation because their parents never taught them. They grew up watching their parents suppress their feelings. 

This realization, of course, can be painful. We’re rarely encouraged to question our upbringing or our history. Instead, we’re usually told to be grateful for our families and what they sacrificed for us. Therefore, this insight, even when beneficial, can cause conflicting emotions. 

What About Historical Trauma?

Historical trauma shares many similarities with intergenerational trauma. The difference lies in that historical trauma includes entire groups of people- not just specific family systems. For example, the trauma endured by oppressed groups like refugees, Blacks, or Jews extends back hundreds of years.

Although the individuals in these groups may not personally know each other, they often report sharing collective experiences. They may experience unified feelings of fear, anger, or betrayal. These effects can be profound. Historical trauma can impact every area of one’s functioning: their self-esteem, relationships, career, physical health, and even their mortality.

We’re now seeing the profound impact of historical trauma in modern media. Right now, thousands of people are hitting the streets and protesting against racism. People everywhere are advocating for equality, justice, and reform.  Society is becoming more aware of the systemic effects of trauma and its trickle-down consequences on entire groups of people. 

Addressing historical trauma often requires large-scale change. It’s not enough to empower a single individual. The entire group needs to feel heard, supported, and respected. Therefore, this change often requires dramatic measures. 

What To Do If You Struggle With Intergenerational Trauma

It can be challenging to identify intergenerational trauma. That’s because people experience the symptoms throughout their lives. In some ways, these symptoms represent a part of their identity. 

The first step towards healing usually comes from a place of self-awareness. You need to gain insight into these symptoms and triggers. These symptoms may be obvious, but they’re usually more covert. 

Trauma-based therapy can help you start this process. Everyone responds differently to trauma, and therapy can help you understand your symptoms and reactions. Additionally, therapy can offer a healing roadmap for working through your trauma and living a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

At Willow Counseling, we specialize in treating all kinds of traumas. We understand the need for cultivating a compassionate and nurturing space for feeling more empowered. We also understand the importance of working towards healing and recovery. The road towards wellness takes time, but we’re here for you throughout the process. Contact us today to get started.

Willow Counseling, LLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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