Generations of Hurt, and Healing

This article was originally published in our Fall 2021 print issue.

There are certain traits that you can inherit from your parents, grandparents, and the generations before you. These traits can manifest themselves in easily visible features, like hair color, while others are less visually apparent, like blood type. However, what does it mean when one “inherits” trauma? The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” The idea of trauma as something that is isolated is gradually being dispelled with the introduction of a relatively new term – intergenerational trauma. This term was coined in 1966 when psychologists studied the descendants of Holocaust survivors and found that their grandchildren were overrepresented in psychiatric care referrals by 300%. The concept of intergenerational trauma is based on the experiences that past generations have faced and the effects that it has on their descendants today. The trauma may have affected a group of individuals at some point in history, but it is the mental, physical, or systemic consequences that follow that can intergenerationally affect their family and descendants. With an issue this heavy, this begs the question of how it is being actively addressed within fields relative to this topic, such as social work, psychology, medicine, public health, and more.

Children and Trauma

Intergenerational trauma implies that it can be passed down generationally through interactions between parents and children, as a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. ACEs is a term commonly used by psychologists and health professionals to describe exposure to trauma at an early age and can include divorce, sexual abuse, household violence, exposure to substance abuse, and more. According to the CDC, the first few years of a child’s life are the most impactful in terms of their health and emotional, social, and cognitive development. The way in which a child is raised by their parents or caregivers directly affects their overall health and wellbeing as they grow up. Exposure to ACEs at a young age has the potential to disrupt a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development, which can cause them to adopt risky behaviors later in life to cope. These risky behaviors can later lead to disease, disability, and other social problems like substance abuse.

A UCLA study found that the children of parents who were exposed to ACEs have a higher likelihood of experiencing behavioral health issues. Trauma can take form in our bodies as toxic stress that can have detrimental effects on our health. The consequences of this can be seen in the development of mental illnesses such as PTSD or depression, which can affect how parents raise their children. While trauma can affect everyone differently, some common symptoms of trauma within individuals can be seen in issues with anger and trust, lack of connection with others, irritability, depression, self-destructive behavior, and more. These symptoms can manifest in some families in the form of behaviors like being overly protective of one’s family members when there is no danger, being hesitant to openly express or speak on their feelings, and more.