Inter-generational Trauma: 6 Ways It Affects Families

Have you ever heard of the term inter-generational trauma? What about “generational curse?”

Inter-generational trauma is a concept developed to help explain years of generational challenges within families. It is the transmission (or sending down to younger generations) of the oppressive or traumatic effects of a historical event. For example, a great grandmother who was placed in a concentration camp in Germany may have learned to cope by “cutting off” her emotions. Because of this, this grandmother may interact with her family in an emotionally distant fashion. That relationship may be tumultuous to say the least.

The transmission of the historical trauma may begin to negatively affect her grandchildren and her grandchildren’s children, etc., leading to generations of emotional distance, defensive behaviors around expression of emotions, and denial.

Inter-generational problems including oppression can often be found in families that have been traumatized in severe forms (e.g., sexual abuse, rape, murder, etc). This article will highlight some of the ways inter-generational trauma can affect younger generations and families.

The consequences of inter-generational trauma are rarely if ever discussed unless a therapist or other mental health professional mentions it. While it is a very important topic, it’s a topic that many mental health professionals are either uninformed about or simply disinterested in. But for trauma therapists, it is important for us to explore how trauma may have negatively impacted generations of family members.

For example, a mother who is struggling with her daughter’s sexual abuse, might also have been sexually abused by her father, who, may have also been sexually abused by his father. The impact of generational trauma is significant. A parent or grandparent who never truly healed from or explored their own trauma may find it very difficult to provide emotional support to a family member suffering from his or her own trauma. Sadly, many families “cope” with inter-generational trauma by employing two unhealthy coping mechanisms:

  • Denial – refusing to acknowledge the trauma happened
  • Minimization – ignoring the impact of the trauma and making the traumatic experience appear smaller than it really is

The ways in which family members “cope” with inter-generational trauma can set the precedence for younger generations. For example, a grandparent who refused to examine the impact of her trauma may be teaching her grandchildren (intentionally or unintentionally) to ignore the impact of their trauma. Sooner or later the trauma is likely to be triggered by something. Trauma is not something you can hide from, no matter how hard you try.

As a result, I have learned over time, by treating multiple clients with trauma histories, that there are a few ways inter-generational trauma negatively impacts families:

  1. Generations may struggle with emotions: As noted above, older generations often set the stage (knowingly or unknowingly) for how emotions within the family are dealt with. Do you hide your emotions and act as if nothing is happening? Do you internalize your emotions until something triggers them to come spilling out? Or does your family drink and/or use drugs to cope with the pain? Whatever way the trauma is dealt with, older generations within a family set the stage for how traumatic events should be (and often are) coped with. Sadly, the trauma continues throughout generations because those who needed help, never received it. In other cases, the family member who is traumatized may even transfer negative emotions on to others within the family such as children or other family members.
  2. Trauma can limitthe parent-childrelationship: Parents who have not received help or support for their trauma can develop unhealthy relationships with their child or grandchild. An unhealthy relationship may be characterized by emotional, psychological, or verbal abuse. In serious cases, the abuse may be sexual or physical. Family members who sexually or physically abuses their child may scare them into not telling anyone or asking for help. This type of abuse can severely alter the parent-child relationship as the abuser (the once-traumatized) is misplacing emotions onto the innocent child and keeping the child from telling others of the abuse. This, of course, is not a justification for all cases of abuse but there are many families that fit this description.
  3. Unresolved psychiatric problemscan lead to relational turmoil: It is a known fact that older generations do not believe in pursuing the help of mental health (and even medial health) professionals. The attitude is often, “I can heal myself.” Some people go so far as to say “they don’t know me, I know myself better. I can help myself.” Family members who are struggling with mental health conditions (depression, anxiety, psychotic symptoms, etc.) truly need help because unresolved psychiatric symptoms can lead to further trauma and emotional turmoil within one’s family. In severe cases, the psychiatric symptoms spread to social and work relationships.
  4. “Borderline” behaviors may develop in younger generations: One of the presuming ideas around BPD is that invalidating environments (i.e., environments where one’s emotions were minimized or ignored), which are often present in families of inter-generational trauma, may lead to the developing symptoms of BPD and ultimately failed familial and social relationships. Because of the trauma of an older relative, the younger generation may experience emotional and psychological abuse which can result in feeling invalidated. These repeated feelings can then lead to labile (or switchable emotions), leading to BPD-like symptoms. Of course, genetics and upbringing, including many other risk and protective factors, also play a role.
  5. Younger generations may develop a “content” attitude with how things are: As noted above, older generations set the stage for how things within a family are addressed. If ignoring and minimizing (and even accepting) the trauma is “normal” for the family, younger generations will adapt to this way of “survival” and mimic the behaviors for generations to come. Individuals who ignore or minimize and deny family trauma are only making matters worse for younger family members. Much of how we cope with traumatic experience is learned. If your family has never learned to seek therapeutic support, reach out for social support, etc., then you are likely to become content with the way you have learned to cope.

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