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?
- Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2009). Intergenerational trauma. Journal de la Santé Autochtone, 5, 6-47.
- DeAngelis, T. (2019). The legacy of trauma. American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology.
- Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth, YMCA Calgary, & University of Calgary. (2012). Interventions to address intergenerational trauma.
- Wikipedia: Transgenerational trauma
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
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.