What Is… Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma - family tree diagram

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is intergenerational trauma.

Trauma that occurs at an individual level is devastating enough, but when it occurs on a collective level, the effects of that trauma may not stop with the people who directly experienced the traumatic events.

Intergenerational trauma affects descendants who didn’t directly experience the traumatic events that their family members went through. Its effects go beyond individual psychology; it also acts at a family, social, and cultural level. In addition to psychosocial effects, it impacts neurobiology and appears to have genetic effects.

Intergenerational trauma causes increased rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders. People may turn to substances in an attempt to cope. Historical trauma can also affect physical health outcomes, including increased rates of hepatitis C and HIV in Aboriginal youth.

Who experiences intergenerational trauma

I’m most familiar with the impact of intergenerational trauma on Aboriginal peoples in Canada, but it’s a phenomenon that occurs in other groups affected by collective trauma. This includes other Indigenous populations, descendants of slaves, descendants of genocide survivors, refugees, and survivors of war.

In the late 1800s and through the 1900s, the Canadian government took Aboriginal children away from their families and communities and forced them to attend residential schools. These schools didn’t allow students to practice any of their own customs, and children were punished for speaking their own language. Physical and sexual abuse were rampant. This has produced an array of negative effects on the present-day health of Aboriginal people, including high rates of substance abuse and suicide. Interventions to address intergenerational trauma in this population tend to focus on reconnection with culture and cultural identity.

The research on intergenerational trauma seems to focus on collective traumatic events. I didn’t come across anything about intergenerational transmission of trauma as a result of traumatic events occurring at an individual level, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Transmission through generations

The transmission of trauma from one generation to another appears to occur through a combination of different mechanisms, involving both nature and nature.

Parents may transmit fear-based survival messages to their children. These messages may have been important for survival while the trauma was occurring, but once the events have passed, it can make people reluctant to self-disclose and to seek help. Children may learn to make negative appraisals of themselves and the world, leading to expectations that future threats are more likely and unpredictable. Parents may also pass on problematic coping strategies to their children.

Survivors may face poverty as a result of the traumatic events, which has an impact on their children. The effects of trauma may compromise parenting abilities. Residential schools had a very direct impact on parenting; survivors who were taken away from their parents as children had no modelling of what parenting should look like. Colonialization can produce a strong sense of powerlessness, which can be transmitted through families.

We’re all influenced in utero by what’s going on for our mother while she’s pregnant. When traumatic events occur while a woman is pregnant, her stress hormones can influence the fetus.

Our genes consist of a series of codes for making proteins. Circumstances don’t change the genes themselves, but they can produce epigenetic changes, which alter the production of proteins based on these codes. Recent research suggests that epigenetic changes are actually transmissible from one generation to the next.

What it means for today

This concept is quite relevant to some of the conversations that are happening now. For groups that have been oppressed and traumatized through generations, the conversation needs to be much broader than simply what’s happening now. We can’t effectively address injustice in the present without understanding the intergenerational effects of collective trauma.

Are you familiar with intergenerational trauma? If so, in what context?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

32 thoughts on “What Is… Intergenerational Trauma”

  1. I completely agree with the idea that addressing what is happening today is not nearly enough. The conversations about race and racial equity need to include what happened to someone’s mother/father, grandmother/grandfather, great grandmother/great grandfather and great great grandmother/great, great grandfather and so on. The conversation needs to include the collective impact as you say over the generations.

  2. Great article! I haven’t read too much about intergenerational trauma yet but it sounds like an interesting topic to explore – and I guess my family is also impacted by it :/

    Thanks for sharing


    1. I think it’s very under-recognized. It seems like the focal populations for research have shifted, with the earlier work being focused on Holocaust survivors and more recent work focusing on Indigenous populations.

  3. Are you familiar with intergenerational trauma? If so, in what context?

    I know a similar practice to the one you cited about Canadian Aboriginal children happened in the United States with regard to Native American children being separated from their birth parents and housed in ‘State Schools” where they were taught English and forced to live as the mostly white people who ran those schools did. I don’t know what the long-lasting impact on Native American peoples has been though. I do know that in Utah, which is populated most heavily with Navajo Native Americans, there was a spike in the same sorts of effects you listed – drug and alcohol abuse, apathy, depression and all sorts of negative things. But it may also be noted that by my generation the tide had begun to turn for some Navajo ‘youth’…they obtained college degrees and practiced medicine or law to help their tribes. I guess it’s dependent on the individual to a degree, isn’t it?

    For myself it’s odd (sort of) that you raised this topic. My parents had varying degrees of familial abuse and trauma as they grew up. A sibling and I were talking about that, and came to the conclusion that, while we had never experienced the same trauma, the changes to my parents because of the trauma did impact us greatly. We’re still overcoming the ripple effect. I’m possibly the worse affected by that along with one cousin who is roughly the same age. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and other problems have plagued us our whole adult lives.

    1. We had heard about the topic as applied to Holocaust survivors from therapists and in books about trauma. We had thought about how it applied to indigenous genocide and persistent racism against People of Color descended from enslavement. Alteration of genetic code from trauma that gets passed on? Sounds like something from Gattaca, like science fiction. This is more reason people can try to empathize with others to prevent bullying, war, all forms of violence. Try to spread love instead

  4. ivanabikorovih

    War. Children that we’re born as a result of rape in rape camps for Bosnian and Croatian women. Catherine MacKinnon was one of the people talking about it in the US, even seeking intervention, although she has always been against interventions. Till this very day, no one is held accountable, and in some cities in Croatia, victims are meeting perpetrators who are mocking them. Often the victims are digging through trash to survive.

      1. ivanabikorovih

        Sadly, our world is savage one. When I am down I keep thinking I am with the ones suffering injustice and not the ones who are building their livelihood on it.

  5. Thank you for writing about this! It’s interesting to me how trauma can be transmitted through both nurture and nature and how much can be passed on from one generation to the next. (it kind of makes me worry if I will be passing on trauma if I have kids?) I was looking this up a couple months ago, and I came across this website, which describes how it can happen on an individual (vs. collective) level: https://drarielleschwartz.com/healing-transgenerational-trauma-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.XuRsFy3MwlI

    And yes it is definitely relevant now. I read James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” for school recently, and it made me think about intergenerational trauma… Baldwin talks about his relationship with his father and how he hated him and how his father made the children cry. He goes on to explain how as he got older he understood that his father was the way he was because of racism and violence etc… Baldwin’s father’s mother (Baldwin’s grandmother) was born during slavery, and I wonder if this was another instance of intergenerational trauma? (probably yes) (I feel like I’m not making sense here) It’s also surprising how few generations ago slavery was (in the US).

    1. I hope more research will be done to get a better understanding of how that transmission happens at an individual level.

      Slavery and a lot of other collective traumas really weren’t that long ago, and I think greater understanding of that in society could go a long way towards promoting some healing.

      1. Yeah, they are a lot of years ago but very few generations ago. More knowledge of history in general would help I think. I didn’t like history in middle and high school and have only come to really see its value in the past couple of years. Now I want to know it all 😉

  6. I hadn’t previously known much about intergenerational trauma Ashley, particularly of the Aboriginal people in Canada. I suppose I hadn’t thought there was a name for it cos I’d read of the Native Americans and the Aboriginal people of New Zealand. Interesting and informative post.

    1. I think it’s something that should be taught in more health professional training programs, since there are, sadly, so many different kinds of collective traumas from the past that are still impacting people’s health today.

  7. I am relatively new to serious work with a trauma therapist. The notion of intergenerational trauma resonates with me. It is why I chose not to have children. Prompt to myself to write about that in an open way. I love your posts!

  8. I’ve heard about intergenerational trauma before. Apparently it’s carried at cell level! Often it amazes me how interconnected we individuals are to one another and the earth and all other living things. I don’t think we adequately consciously realise it. Maybe if we did we (countries) wouldn’t be so destructive with one another, there would be more of an empathy and respect.

    The whole human race, regardless of creed and colour, needs to learn another, better and kinder way of living.

    Both my parents were abused at different levels, different ways as children (my father by strangers he had to live with as a child during the war) and I wonder how much of that is carried in ME; causing me anxiety and depression?

    I heard in a documentary that the English were destructive of the Welsh way of life – their language and customs – and the English today (although innocent as it was the government, and the ANCESTORS OF MODERN GOVERNMENTS who did those things!) are still hated by those from Wales. I’ve felt that hate myself (from England with Irish/Scottish ancestry as well) when as a child and later as a 19 year old I holidayed there – receiving nasty looks, snide comments in Welsh from the women and under-cooked food. Despite Wales being a most beautiful country of the UK, for that reason I don’t choose to stay there for holidays anymore. And they have such a beautiful, magical spoken language and wonderful singers!

    At some point, to be healthy and to continue, you have to draw a line in the sand.

    So, how much of that intergenerational trauma is inside those Welsh people today from major hurts from the past?

    How much does intergenerational trauma impact the children of World War Two – and continues to do so through their generations? The world is a very hurt place. No wonder we struggle.

    All the best and thank you for an interesting post xo

  9. Really interesting post and very clear explanations. You’ve done quite a bit of research it seems. The transmission of fear-based messages in an idea I think I’ve heard of before. But the bit about epigenetics is pretty new to me. Creating awareness around intergenerational trauma is so important. Increased awareness around trauma in general would be great. I feel like people don’t really understand that trauma affects the nervous system, our behaviors, our core beliefs about ourselves and others, and our literal brain chemistry. And without that understanding people can’t begin to empathize and meet people where they happen to be.

    I actually watched an interesting documentary recently, called SKIDS. It’s about an alternative trauma-informed school in Langley BC. Really beautiful and really cool! The aboriginal support worker at the school gives a powerful account of intergenerational trauma in the documentary.

    Anywho, I’m a blogger and I wrote a review of the film if you’d be interested! The film itself is at the bottom of the page too! Here’s the link: https://bullshitpositivity.com/skids-a-must-watch-documentary/

    I blog about self-love, that’s my passion. My only credentials are having attended a lot of therapy. Which of course I am inexplicably grateful for.

    Thanks again for this lovely informative post,


    1. Thanks for sharing that! I’ll watch the doc when I get a chance, but it sounds pretty amazing. And that school is in my neck of the woods, too.

      1. Very cool! Yes, I’m still quite interested in that school. I want to learn a little bit more about its creation and where it sources its information. But thanks for following 🙂

  10. Very interesting read. I haven’t often wondered if my mother’s depression passed it’s way to me, as I was a very melancholy child, and have always felt emotions too deeply.

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