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4 Minutes Read

What is intergenerational trauma?

Do you ever notice yourself having an odd habit you picked up from your parents, or sticking stubbornly to a point of view you learned from your grandmother? Often these are benign quirks like cracking your knuckles, or little traditions like a particular way to make a family recipe. But sometimes these inherited behaviors are more serious, and could be a sign of something deeper about your family’s past.

For example, let’s say you’re a financially comfortable single adult living on your own, and you find yourself constantly overshopping for food at the grocery store. Your cupboards are stuffed with dried goods, and there always seems to be enough produce in your fridge for a group of people. 

You know you go a little overboard, but sometimes you actually break out in a sweat when you contemplate changing this habit. That reaction surprises you, but you explain it away by thinking you’re used to shopping this way because that’s how your parents did things when you were growing up too. 

Chatting about this with your mother in passing, you come to find out that her father always made sure his family had more than enough to eat because of his childhood experience of often going to bed hungry. She remembers him getting nervous and on edge when he saw food supplies running low, not relaxing again until everything was restocked - feelings she admits she now often has too. 

Your grandfather’s hardship shaped how he felt about needing to always have food available to feel secure. Through his example, he passed that mentality on to your mother, who then passed it on to you. You’re acting in the present day like there’s a risk of undernourishment and hunger like your grandfather faced back then - despite the fact that you live in very different circumstances and that risk does not exist for you.

Intergenerational trauma from historical events

In some communities, many people find themselves impacted by intergenerational trauma due to major historical events that had wide scale impacts several generations ago. 

For example, Indigenous and First Nations communities in the United States and Canada that were subjected to the residential boarding school system in the 19th and 20th centuries may see their members experiencing ongoing effects of those attempts at forced assimilation today. This could take many forms, including struggling to find a sense of identity or (understandably) feeling wary or distrustful of institutions.

Descendants of Holocaust survivors may also grapple with the aftermath of the traumas experienced by their grandparents or great-grandparents. This could mean feeling vigilant all the time like a catastrophe could happen at any moment, or finding it hard to experience the joys of the present due to feeling consumed by the enormous losses of the past. 

Outside the context of genealogical relationships, some LGBTQ people experience intergenerational trauma related to the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Although the landscape of HIV transmission and treatment is vastly different today than it was in the 1980s, the ignorance and stigma perpetuated by some medical and political authorities at the time created a suspicion of healthcare professionals in some LGBTQ people that persists to this day. 

Among younger LGBTQ people, some describe a sense of loss of guides or mentors, as many LGBTQ people passed away in the early years of the AIDS crisis and were not able to become elders passing on wisdom to the next generation.

Intergenerational trauma from specific circumstances

Sometimes, intergenerational trauma arises from a particular situation or event that happened to a family member - in other words, a trauma experienced by your parent, grandparent, or even great grandparent. Possible events that could result in intergenerational trauma include:

  • Loss of a parent at a young age
  • Disappearance or sudden death of a sibling
  • Foster care placement
  • Sexual assault
  • Narcissistic abuse
  • Severe bullying

Such situations could have really impacted your family member’s self-esteem, ability to cope with stress or strong emotions, trust in other people, or sense of belonging in the world. Those viewpoints could have been taught from one generation to the next until they reached you. Because of intergenerational trauma, difficulties you experience may have been present for other people in your family for a long time.

How to heal

In addition to typical forms of healing from trauma, a powerful form of healing from intergenerational trauma is breaking the cycle. 

This could mean reclaiming a culture that was stolen from your ancestors, confronting an abuser who has harmed multiple generations of people in your family, or having the experience of parenting or mentoring younger community members in a healthier way, where they are not compelled to continue carrying the trauma of the past. 

Therapy can provide guidance as you face how intergenerational trauma has affected your present and your family’s history. Click the button below to book a free phone consultation - I’d love to chat more about how I may be able to support you on this journey.


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