Have you ever heard about the concept generational trauma? Are you aware that trauma can be transmitted from one generation to the next through genes or DNA? Well, trauma survivors can transfer the effects of unresolved trauma from one generation to the next. With that said, trauma can be passed down from parents to children through genes or DNA, as well as through learned behaviours. In this article, you are going to gain insights on the meaning of generational trauma. In addition, the effects of generational trauma on individuals and families will be reviewed. Please keep reading.

What is Generational Trauma?

Generational trauma is also called transgenerational, inter-generational or inherited trauma. Transgenerational trauma refers to trauma that has been passed on to the 2nd and subsequent generations by a generation that has witnessed or experienced atrocities or a catastrophe directly.

With that said, someone does not only experience trauma, but they tend to transmit the symptoms and behaviors of that trauma to subsequent generations. This happens because trauma survivors are never aware nor have the capability to address their traumatic situations when they occur.

Over time, these symptoms and behaviours, which are often destructive, tend to become the norm within families, which increases the possibility of passing the same problems to subsequent generations. What does that mean? Well, you are likely to manifest negative symptoms of a trauma that occurred to a close significant other in the distant past despite there been no direct contact with that person.

What’s more, once you’ve experienced trauma, you can pass on the negative symptoms or behaviors of that trauma to your children, and your children might further pass such behaviors and symptoms to their children and so on. As a result, generations within your family system will continue to experience the trauma in some form over the years.

Epigenetics and Transgenerational Trauma

According to science, transferred trauma is more than just learned behaviors. With that said, you can inherit trauma through genes or DNA. In other words, there is evidence that environmental experiences can affect how your genes work. This process is known as epigenetics and it can affect people across generations.

What I’m I saying? That your kids can inherit changes that occur in how your genes are expressed because of environmental stressors. With that being said, some mental health issues that manifest among young people may be due to transgenerational transmission of trauma.

Examples of Transgenerational Trauma

Generational trauma can be in the form of a natural trauma such as tsunami, earthquake, or a man-made trauma such as genocidal wars or holocaust. Other forms of trauma that find their way to subsequent generations include, child abuse and neglect, substance misuse, sexual assault, family violence, just to mention, but a few. Exposure to such experiences tends to cause trauma because they harm your well-being and sense of self. For instance, if a person experienced child abuse, it is likely that the cycle of abuse, as well as anxiety will continue among other generations.

The Physical and Psychological Effects on Individuals and Families 

People who have experienced this type of trauma manifest various signs and symptoms as you will see below:

  • Individuals or family members may have low levels of cortisol, which means that they might not be able to cope with some forms of trauma as effectively as people with normal levels of cortisol. 
  • A mother’s negative experiences with trauma might mean that her child will not be able to cope with stress or adapt. 
  • You are likely to suffer from symptoms of PTSD, addictions, depression, anxiety, stress, anger or other mental disorders because of events you never experienced first hand. 
  • You are more likely to exhibit other forms of unconscious inheritance such as financial worries and unhappy relationships.
  • Fear of abandonment is also common among individuals whose grandparents became orphans at an early age. In other words, psychological or physical abandonment that was never addressed may manifest in the fears of a 8 year old grandchild. 
  • A parent who has not resolved his or her trauma tends to have poor parenting skills, which might be passed on to other generations. For instance, a parent with unresolved trauma might not be able to offer emotional support to a child going through trauma. 
  • What’s more, trauma can affect a parent’s ability to show love, attachment, and instill values and beliefs in a child. Therefore, such a child might behave similarly with her children. 
  • Unhealthy ways of coping with trauma tend to be passed on to subsequent generations. For instance,  some families tend to minimize, ignore or refuse to acknowledge that trauma exists. Therefore, such coping mechanisms tend to become the norm within such families. 
  • In addition, genetic patterns or inheritability of suicidal tendencies can trigger suicidal ideations among family members and individuals.