Intergenerational Trauma

intergenerational trauma

How Do You Heal from Intergenerational Trauma?

Imagine if your grandparents went through something really traumatic or sad, like a massive natural disaster or being forced to move far away from homeland, or were victims of a serious crime.

Even though these things happened a long time ago, before you were born, they can still impact your family today.

Intergenerational trauma is when the effects of those traumatic events are passed down, like a family story, but instead of being told like a tale, it affects how people feel and act. So, some fears or worries or ways of coping can be passed from your grandparents, to your parents, and then maybe even to you.

Similarly, if your parents or grandparents grew up in a neglectful or harsh household where affectionate emotions were not shared, or if there was severe punishment, bullying or substance abuse, these experiences form emotional scars that affect how they see the world, how they form relationships and how they act towards their own children.

In this way the trauma of one generation can flow from one generation to the next.

Thankfully, there are ways to heal and stop intergenerational trauma.

There are strategies you can learn and specific steps you can take to move forward and heal yourself and others.

Let’s explore a little more about intergenerational trauma and how to stop the aftermath of these traumatic events from spreading from one generation to the next.

trust issues intergenerational trauma

What exactly is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is when the emotional, psychological, and social effects of trauma transfer from one generation to future generations.

It happens when trauma experienced by one person creates mental health issues, dysfunctional behavioral patterns and damaged relationship dynamics.

Through these behaviours and damaging coping mechanisms the effects of the initial trauma also impacts the children and grandchildren.

Sometimes an entire generation or group of people experience the same trauma at the same time.

Some examples include war, famine, displacement, slavery, genocide, colonization, pandemics and oppression. The Great Depression, the Holocaust, Residential Schools in Canada are just a few examples of when large numbers of people have experienced a traumatic event together.

Personal and family belief systems can change based upon the trauma from past experiences. Entire families may adopt new fear based beliefs based upon the past trauma of the parent's experiences:

“things can change drastically when you least expect it – you need to be prepared for the worst.”

“other people are dangerous and can’t be trusted”

"don't show emotions or love - you will look weak"

“money is scarce - there will never be enough”

“I need to always be alert and ready to protect myself from enemies that want to harm me”

“there is something very wrong with me that others hate”

“I will never be good enough”

“criticism, shaming and harsh punishment are the best ways to correct a child”

“I am no good, my culture and language are shameful”

“we are never safe”

And of course these beliefs create changes in behaviour that permeate the family system.

holocaust intergenerational trauma

When people experience trauma and have no help or resources to help them process the hurt, they do what they can to cope with the pain and damage caused by the trauma.

Trauma survivors may turn to drugs or alcohol to help ease the pain; they may become angry and aggressive or fearful and withdrawn; they may be focused on excessively pleasing those around them in order to stay safe; they may use the terrifying forms of punishment they received on others; they may drift into relationships that are abusive, controlling or disrespectful. They may feel they are continually in survival mode.

Dysfunctional coping mechanisms, repeated retelling of traumatic experiences, distorted family belief systems, harmful learned behaviors, extensive conflict, damaged trust, excessive need to please others, anxiety, hypervigilance, unhealthy coping mechanisms, aggression, sexual violence, neglect, abusive parenting, domestic violence, exposure to excessive substance use, heightened stress response and even epigenetic inheritance through changes to DNA sequence are all ways in which the initial trauma is transmitted through successive generations.

In this way, intergenerational ancestral trauma can significantly harm the well-being and social structures of affected persons and communities, often requiring targeted therapeutic interventions by mental health professionals to address the impact of traumatic events and promote the healing process.

Examples of Intergenerational Trauma

first nations intergenerational trauma

Intergenerational Trauma From Colonization and Residential School

In the 1940’s Rosemary Red Dog was taken by government officials as a small 6 year old child from the reservation where she lived with her family in British Columbia Canada and sent to live at a residential school. Her family had no choice and was threatened with prison if did not let her go. They were also told that the experience would benefit Rosemary.

From age 6 onwards Rosemary was not able to go home and could not visit or even communicate with her family except in the summers.

At school, her hair was cut, she was given another name, was forbidden to speak in her language, and was severely punished if she made mistakes. She soon learned to be ashamed of who she was and was frequently told her heritage and culture were evil.

After years of being separated from her family she grew more distant and she felt helpless and alone. She witnessed beatings and learned how to be quiet, blend in and tried hard to “be good”.

After her required schooling was over she went back to the reservation and met a man a little older than her. They lived together and had 4 children. Neither knew how to parent as they had both spent their childhood in residential school and had no role models to follow.

They disciplined their children the only way they knew how, harsh criticism and beatings, just as they had experienced in residential school.

They had never known the gentle way that children are guided into adulthood that was part of their culture, or felt a true pride in their identity – having always been told there was something wrong with who they were.

Intergenerational Trauma from War and Famine

Marsca’s family story included the fact that her grandparents had escaped war in their home country, which was a tale of pride.

But also one of horror, as the story also involved the rape, torture, death and loss of extended family. And after that came the famine.

For those that survived there was always the sense of guilt and fear that seemed to overshadow everything. Instead of forming close bonds with one another, it was as though a practice of emotional distance would keep them safe.

Marsca always felt anxious, like something bad was always around the corner. She turned to drugs to help soothe her stress, but that brought it’s own set of problems and pain.

Intergenerational Trauma In the Adult Children of Alcoholics


From a young age, Justin always knew the importance of being quiet, happy and good. When his dad was drinking it didn’t feel safe in the house. If he stayed quiet in his bedroom, he could escape the wrath of his father, who was a “mean drunk”.

Justin hated living at home and was embarrassed about the constant chaos in his house. He never could risk having school friends over in case his dad exploded in drunken rage.

Some days Dad was nice. But mostly not. And some days the smallest event could trigger fury, threats, and violence. Mom said it was important that Justin not talk about Dad to others and that Dad was just sick and needed Justin to be quiet.

Now Justin is an adult with his own life. He is confused by the fact that he seems to attract partners who are demanding, critical, needy, volatile and fill his life with drama. His latest girlfriend told him he will never be good enough for her, and got so angry with him one night she set about destroying his apartment causing thousands of dollars of damage. He loves her and wonders why this type of situation keeps happening to him.

What are some of the symptoms of intergenerational trauma?

intergenerational trauma no emotional expression

Do you have trouble expressing or showing emotions? That is one possible symptom of intergenerational trauma. There are many other ways intergenerational trauma is expressed.

Multigenerational trauma may show up in individuals in many ways including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, adverse childhood experiences, anger issues, violence, low self-esteem, codependency, difficulty trusting others, trauma bonding, unhealthy attachment styles, denial, extreme compulsions to please others and to keep the peace, distancing, hypervigilance, lowered impulse control, unhealthy coping mechanisms, feelings of hopelessness and various mental health conditions.

In addition to social and psychological symptoms, intergenerational historical trauma can contribute to physical health causing higher risk of illnesses such as auto-immune disorders, chronic pain, and conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

There is even evidence of DNA changes in response to some forms of trauma - the effects of intergenerational trauma such as natural disasters and famine can be seen in epigenetic changes in subsequent generations.

What can be done to heal intergenerational trauma?

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Healing generational trauma is a long but very worthwhile journey. The first step is awareness of the trauma. The next is turning towards compassion.

Compassion towards yourself (and others) is the key to healing. When you become mired in guilt, judgement and shame it disrupts the healing and recovery process and drags you further down into the deep mud of trauma.

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Benefits of Healing from Intergenerational Trauma

As you begin to heal from generational trauma you can expect the following benefits:

• Ability to express and talk about your emotions
• Being more open to trusting others
• Decreased time isolating and increased time spent with others
• Ability to face fears
• Not being afraid of change
• Feeling more connected with yourself and family members
• Better sense of self worth
• Increased self esteem
• Increased ability to regulate emotions

You Can Start Healing Intergenerational Trauma

Taking the step to start healing generational trauma can be a big one, but some ways to start can involve:

Seeking professional help
Getting help in finding and processing the root source of the trauma
Accepting that the trauma did occur, and developing the strength to move beyond it to better things
Working on being open to change
Practicing self-care
Allowing yourself to grieve and process your emotions
Seeking ongoing professional support and trauma treatment

Trauma-informed care including modalities such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, EMDR hypnotherapy and others can be a practical and effective approach for individuals with generational trauma and focuses on understanding, acknowledging, and responding to a person’s life experiences.

Do you need a safe space to help with processing trauma? If you have experienced childhood trauma or have a family history of intergenerational trauma, you will benefit from professional caring empathetic mental health treatment. You are not alone.