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. Physical health outcomes may also be affected, and historical trauma has been linked to 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. In these schools, they weren’t permitted to practice any of their own customs, and they 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 be focused 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. There is still much research to be done on this topic.
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 may 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. If a mother is exposed to traumatic events while pregnant, her stress hormones can influence the fetus.
Our genes consist of a series of codes for making proteins. While circumstances can’t change those codes, they can change whether or not various bits of code get translated into proteins. This process is called epigenetics. Recent research suggests that epigenetic changes can actually be transmitted 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. Injustice in the present can’t be effectively addressed without understanding the intergenerational effects of collective trauma.
Are you familiar with intergenerational trauma? If so, in what context?
You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.
- American Psychological Association: The legacy of trauma
- Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2009). Intergenerational trauma. Journal de la santé autochtone, 5, 6-47.
- Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth, YMCA Calgary, & University of Calgary. (2012). Interventions to address intergenerational trauma.
- Wikipedia: Transgenerational trauma