Updated: Jun 14, 2022
Intergenerational trauma is complex because it affects both the family system and family members. One of most frustrating aspects of intergenerational trauma can be the denial or acceptance from other family members. Intergenerational trauma experiences can sometimes bring families closer emotionally, other times it can cause families to drift apart.
Intergenerational trauma can impact families in many ways including:
Feeling disconnected from family members
Feeling detached from the family or members of the family
Feeling the need or creating distance from family or members of the family
Low self esteem as a result of minimization of a children’s own life experiences in comparison to the parent’s experienced trauma
Trauma bonding, which can be created out of a cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement.
Estrangement or complete disconnect from the family or members of the family
How individuals in the family system are impacted.
Individuals can carry intergenerational trauma for extended periods of time without being able to verbalize the need to grieve the past traumas experienced by family members. Intergenerational trauma can take both a physical and mental health toll on individuals and sometimes it can hide in the presenting symptoms it creates. This can lead to increased stress which can increase the chances of chronic pain, heart concerns, and other behaviors that can impact one’s overall wellness.
Symptoms that can arise due to intergenerational trauma include:
Anger and/or irritability
Depression and suicidal ideation
Substance use disorders
Shame or guilt
Heightened sense of helplessness
Difficulty with relationships and attachment struggles
Difficult regulating aggression
Extreme reactivity to stress
Breaking the Intergenerational Trauma Cycle
Intergenerational trauma is passed down or transmitted through relationship attachment styles between parent and child. This typically occurs when a parent has experienced abuse or trauma of their own during their childhood and this cycle continues through generations. It can be difficult to break an intergenerational trauma cycle as ‘what keeps the cycle going’ can be deeply ingrained within the family system, making it feeling impossible to challenge the status quo. Another challenge of breaking the intergenerational trauma cycle is feeling safe enough to do so with family members. Despite how much we want to encourage our loved ones to change, sometimes strong boundaries have to be implemented in order protect future generations.
Healing from Intergenerational Trauma
When individuals seek treatment for familial trauma it can be stressful to manage their feelings around their experiences and the denial that may come from other family members about how they perceived their past childhood. Recovery from intergenerational trauma can be an ongoing process but there are ways to care for yourself during that journey. This can include practices that help individuals be in tune with body responses, confronting your fear to reduce anxiety around it, exploring various pars of your personality to help understand your whole self or challenging unhelpful beliefs surrounding trauma that may make you feel ‘stuck’. It’s important to keep in mind that there is no singular set path for healing, and that ‘healing’ can look different for everyone. Acknowledging the validly of one’s trauma and where it comes from is an important step in holding space for those struggling with intergenerational trauma.