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What is Intergenerational Trauma and How Does it Work?


Intergenerational trauma refers to the “handing down” of traumatic after-effects, whether they be significant life-threatening events or negative circumstances repeated over time. Those impacts can be transmitted in a multitude of ways.


Intergenerational trauma was first studied in the 1960s and was centered on descendants of Holocaust survivors. Essentially, researchers have determined that older generations set the tone for how emotions are dealt with in a family. So, you can imagine that the ramifications of their traumatic experiences would be very impactful for the generations that come after them. Of course, this can be subconsciously felt and can shape a family system without being directly discussed or taught.



A subset of intergenerational trauma is historical trauma. Historical trauma refers to the behaviors, beliefs, and emotion regulation strategies that were shaped by the violent and oppressive conditions that marginalized people faced on a regular basis. Examples might include slavery, forced migration, colonization, and cultures of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The impacts of those conditions can be passed down through generations. Some of the common manifestations might look like: individuals with a justified sense of mistrust, an expectation that everything will eventually be taken away from them, a belief that everyone is rooting for them to fail, a pronounced flinching response, a sense of passiveness, or a sense of aggression or defensiveness.


Of course, it’s important not to looking for problems where they do not exist; however, some individuals find themselves suffering in ways that they cannot fully understand or account for. For those of us who experience these unexplained patterns, we offer a set of questions.


Let’s call this a thought experiment!


Thought Experiment:

  • Did our family systems tend to celebrate emotional sharing, or did they shut that down?

  • Were we encouraged to connect with our cultural heritages or were we expected to assimilate?

  • If we cried as a child, did any adults stop what they were doing to find out what happened?

  • Did adults in our families tend to trust our accounts or did they act as if we were often up to no good?

  • Were we encouraged not to stand out in crowd or not to draw attention to ourselves?

  • Were we consoled when feeling difficult emotions or were we labeled “too sensitive?”

  • Did our caregivers indicate that our difficult experiences could never compare to how hard others had it? (and were they referring to themselves?)

  • And now, if our current lives, how freely do we share our emotions?

  • Do we tend to trust or doubt ourselves, our decision making, and our emotions?


Even if a person has never experienced a traumatic event themselves, it is possible to “inherit” a tendency to be fearful, defensive, superstitious, to shut down, or to self-sabotage, just as someone who had experienced trauma within their own lives.


Interested in the science?


Epigenetic researchers would argue that difficult life experiences, such as chronic stress, famine, torture, and abuse affect humans all the way down to their DNA. Essentially, they believe that the impacts of trauma are passed on to children through their genetics. In this way, we might be dealing with grief and anxiety that we do not even understand or know is there. On the psychology side of things, Cognitive Behavioral therapists argue that the effects of intergenerational trauma come from parents, grandparents, or other family members operating in ways that reflect their pain, fear, defensiveness, and difficulty feeling and processing their own emotions. This then leads children to copy their styles and behaviors and to assume that this is a good and safer way to live. Further, from the standpoint of Attachment Theory, when caregivers are occupied with their own internal difficulties, this can make it very difficult for them to sit with their children’s pain and impart the feelings of safety and security that they need to thrive.


When we take all of this information into consideration, we can see that trauma impacts us in a multitude of ways…even if isn’t our own trauma but that of our families*.


For those interested in processing and better understanding their own experiences and family dynamics, our Skyline clinicians offer free phone consultations. Find out how we can create a supportive atmosphere and custom treatment plan for you.




*Of course, it should be mentioned that this blog discussion has centered on real, significant life-threatening experiences. Although within pop culture it has become the norm to use the label “trauma” to describe smaller hurts, inconveniences, and life challenges, psychologists reserve that term to describe specific experiences that are life-threatening or that involve significant bodily or psychological harm.

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