Generational trauma is sometimes referred to in few different ways. It can also be called “intergenerational trauma”. Other people us the terms “ancestral trauma” or “transgenerational trauma”. But, whatever we call it, it can profoundly shape mental health across generations. Apart from contributing to psychological distress, it can also influence physical health, behaviors, and relationships.

Trauma, sadly, is all too common. Particularly in families. Current research puts the numbers at 50 percent for women and 60 percent for men for enduring at least one traumatic event during their lifetime. Generational trauma is a term used to describe a “passing down” of traumatic impact and emotional fallout. Some people also refer to it as “intergenerational trauma”. But regardless of what you call it, trauma can create ripples of behavior and perception affecting generations of the same family for much longer than members realize.

Moreover, generational trauma typically results from both a lack of awareness and/or the stigma of the trauma. In addition to families simply not recognizing how much they are shaped by horrific events in the past, they may be reluctant to call it out. Unfortunately, the stigma of seeking mental health treatment is enough to keep difficult and disturbing things undiscussed and unaddressed.

Defining Generational Trauma.

Generational trauma is a form of collective suffering which can be caused by extreme events or prolonged periods of difficulty. Generational trauma can result from conditions such as wars, slavery, or natural disasters. It is typically passed down from one generation to the next via shared myths and stories, family trauma dynamics, as well as environmental and cultural influences. Additionally, physiological changes brought on by specific experiences of trauma—e.g., heightened stress levels in the body and brain–can also be inherited. As such, generational trauma does not have to be conscious for current generations to feel its effects and it can manifest in various ways over time.

So, How Common Is Trauma?

Short answer: too common. Each and every minute, 20 individuals are physically abused by their intimate partner. Abuse and neglect are a reality for 1 in 7 children. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is developed by 4 percent of men and 10 percent of women. Roughly 8 million people will develop PTSD in any given year. And then there is all the sexual violence: 20 percent of men endure sexual violence during their lifetime. For women, the number is nearly 50 percent.

Again, these events can impose enduring pain on a family for generations. The first step toward reversing this impact is to recognize the signs and symptoms.

What are examples of Intergenerational Trauma?

Some common examples of intergenerational trauma amongst patients I’ve seen in my practice include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Alcohol and drug addiction
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Refugees
  • Survivors of combat trauma and war related trauma

Generational Trauma Signs & Symptoms

The aforementioned denial is just one of the red trauma-treatmentflags to look for. Here’s a sampling of other manifestations of generational trauma symptoms:

  • Emotional numbing and depersonalization
  • Unresolved and complicated grief
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Fearfulness
  • Memory loss
  • Anger and irritability
  • Nightmares
  • Inability to connect with others
  • Lack of trust of others
  • Substance abuse
  • Recurring thoughts of death, dying, and suicide

For school-age children or teens, the signs may be more obvious inside an academic setting. For example:

  • Disciplinary issues
  • Poor grades
  • Cutting classes
  • Dropping out

When observing a family collectively, there are trends that warrant closer examination, e.g.

  • Any talk about feelings is dismissed and viewed as “weakness”
  • Acute over-protectiveness of children and elderly family members — even when no danger is present
  • Very tepid emotional responses to extreme events
  • Very wary of “outsiders”
  • Falling easily into conflict with each other and those “outsiders”

Dealing With Generational Trauma Symptoms

Subsequent generations can pass down trauma and its outcomes. The same can be said for resiliency. Therefore, it is imperative that you take serious steps to address this debilitating scenario. Here are a few to consider:

  • Do the work to identify the intergenerational trauma patterns that exist within your family
  • Recognize attitudes that may be keeping your family stuck
  • Develop compassion for yourself and others for enduring struggles
  • Begin productive conversations with family members
  • Learn about their experiences and coping mechanisms

These primary goals help halt the momentum of generational trauma while creating new, positive narratives.

First, cultivate a support system to help make change happen. Recruit family members with whom you get along. Also, remember: plenty of “outsiders” can be trustworthy and helpful. One such outsider may be a mental health professional.

Intergenerational Trauma, and Any Kind of Trauma Requires Professional Help

It can be a powerful step to stop seeing this as a private “family problem.” Trauma and PTSD are disorders. That means, for starters, you should seek out a qualified trauma therapist. Give yourself — and thus, your family — a chance to break the cycle. Explore pervasive underlying habits and patterns. Learn skills that will put an end to the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Dare to visualize a new way of interacting and resolving conflict.

Strive to heal the lingering wounds and scars.

Finally, neither you nor your family is doomed to remain stuck in your traumas. You can move past the fear of stigma and the lack of trust. Your journey to recovery can commence safely and confidentially. I would appreciate the opportunity to facilitate this process with you. Please read more about trauma therapy and let’s connect to make change happen.