Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma, also known as transgenerational trauma, is a term used to describe the transfer of psychopathology from the first generation of trauma survivors to the subsequent generations oof the survivors via mechanisms similar to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) whereby an individual experiences the acute stressors directly.

Following World War II, descriptions of concentration camp syndrome or survivor syndrome began to appear in the literature. In the mid-1960s, clinicians observed a large influx of children of Holocaust survivors were seeking treatment in clinics across the world. Later, the proportion of referrals to child psychiatry clinics from grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were three-folds higher than their representation in the general population.

The mental health phenomenon of children and grandchildren of trauma survivors has been described by some authors as secondary traumatisation. To include subsequent generations, the term intergenerational transmission of trauma was introduced. Building upon the clinical observations by Selma Fraiberg, child trauma researchers such as Byron Egeland, Inge Bretherton, and Daniel Schechter empirically identified psychological mechanisms that favor intergenerational transmission, including dissociation in the context of attachment and communication of prior traumatic experience as a consequence of parental efforts to maintain self-regulation in the context of PTSD and related alterations in social cognitive processes.

As mental health researchers began to focus on transgenerational trauma, there was a wider recognition of slavery, civil and domestic violence, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty are also sources of trauma that can be transferred to subsequent generations. Research identified child sexual abuse as a factor that negatively influence future generations due to past untreated or unresolved trauma which can increase feelings of mistrust, isolation, and loneliness. Research also suggests transmission of trauma symptoms following the aftermath of natural disasters. For example, in the United States, New Orleans residents report a dramatic increase in interpersonal violence with higher mortality rates following Hurricane Katrina that correlates with greater admission rates in psychiatric hospitals.

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Transgenerational trauma has been reported in the descendants of students at American Indian boarding schools who were removed from their parents and extended family and lacked models for parenting as a result. Being punished for speaking their native language and forbidden from practicing traditional rituals had a traumatic effect on many students, and child abuse was rampant in the schools as well.

How is trauma transferred?

Previous research assumed that the trauma transmission was mainly caused by the parents’ child-rearing behavior. However, recent research suggests additional epigenetic mechanisms involved in the transmission of PTSD symptoms. A study published in 2015 suggest a parental experience of trauma may change a child’s stress hormone profiles. Although scientific research on transgenrational trauma remains at its infancy, the results provide hope that the mental health issues of dependents of trauma survivors can be reversed.

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In a post from September 29, 2016, Matt Bennett discussed how clinicians can help their clients overcome the impact of this trauma and free themselves from intergenerational pain. Here is an excerpt from that post.

In my thinking about trauma healing, intergenerational trauma extends our discussion about personal narratives to include family history. The research on intergenerational trauma demonstrates how we carry out family’s story into our own life, in both positives and harmful ways. Following this thinking, I suggest those doing personal narrative work also include family histories as part of the exploration, when they feel it is appropriate for a certain client.

In an ideal world, everyone entering services should be assessed for family trauma history. My struggle is that, since we already ask so many tough questions, diving into the past increases risks of re-traumatization, and could damage the therapeutic relationship. This is why I believe that if we are not doing therapy or some kind of personal narrative work, we should avoid structured assessments in most situations.

In place of these, professionals in non-therapy positions should pay close attention to any signs or conversation from the client about past pain in the family. Including short questions in an intake such as, “Can you briefly describe some of the strengths and challenges of your family growing up?” may be a good way to gain some insight, and can elucidate whether past family trauma could be an issue to address either through narrative work or a referral to specialized mental health services.

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In the past, patients who were combat veterans, hostages, prisoners of war, or civilians who suffered due to casualties of war were treated in government sponsored programs whereas individuals with a family history of experiencing traumatic events were traditionally treated by family therapists. However, the descendants of both immediate witnesses and victims of genocide, colonial suppression, slavery, political totalitarian control, clerical abuse in religious organizations, and many survivors of terrorism suffered without mental health support. This was largely due to the lack of awareness regarding transgenerational trauma.

Sadly, we can almost assume that almost everyone seeking therapy is struggling to some extent with intergenerational trauma. This differs depending on the demographics, but since most of us can see this in our own family history, it is pretty safe to assume that pain from our family history is something most people carry with them. The hope is, if we can help people see the importance of mental health services in relation to intergenerational trauma that the wounds can begin to be acknowledged consciously and slowly healed through therapy.

For those practicing psychotherapy, the research around intergenerational trauma shows the importance of family mapping. In my own work, before ever hearing the words intergenerational trauma, I found mapping family history a critical part of my clinical assessments. It was something that informed interventions for individual and family therapy. In these maps, a story of the family emerges, and it is within this story that the personal narrative develops.

Beyond just an assessment, family maps also can be effectively integrated into the actual treatment and can provide the therapist with an opportunity to discuss intergenerational trauma with the client. This helps put current struggles into a historical perspective, and can build motivation around doing the tough work often required of clients working through traumatic experiences. In addition, I’ve also found family maps effective in demonstrating how substance abuse and other behaviors impacting the client have a family origin. This embers the therapist with the ability to talk with clients about how their own healing journey can help prevent these behaviors from going on to the next generation.

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