Updated: Nov 17, 2021
A traumatic event that your parents or grandparents went through could still be impacting on you now. This is called Intergenerational Trauma. I know this seems a bit heavy and upsetting but let me explain how the effects of trauma are passed down and what you can do about it. This can help to explain symptoms like low self-confidence, sleep difficulties, poor relationships with your folks or worry and anxiety.
Did any of your family live through any of the following first-hand: strict or neglectful parenting from their own parents; immigration; poverty; war; racism; homophobia; domestic abuse; childhood abuse; bullying; parents with mental illness, alcohol or drug dependence; violence; loss; severe physical health problems or something similar? It’s highly likely that this has impacted on them.
If you Google 'Intergenerational Trauma' you will see lots written about Collective Trauma (i.e. when large social groups go through a trauma together, such as Holocaust survivors, societies effected by famine, war or natural disaster or displaced groups like aboriginals and slavery). These are really important forms of Big T trauma and might have affected your family members. But I also want to highlight that Intergenerational Trauma can be relevant even if your relatives suffered from seemingly smaller traumas or highly stressful events that weren’t linked to wider societal problems. This can be harder to spot and easier to dismiss as a valid reason to be experiencing the after-effects.
How did trauma affect your parent or grandparent at the time?
Repeated or prolonged trauma effects the nervous system (NS) – the part of our body that controls all of our organs and body functions. The NS has different settings according to what’s happening around us. When we are in a safe environment then it’s business-as-usual for our NS, meaning we can digest food normally, focus on things well and enjoy a conversation without feeling irritable. But when we become alert to potential danger our NS switches into survival gear and all the organs change into their emergency modes.
When this happens for a short burst of time then our NS can go back to business-as-usual mode pretty easily. But if it keeps happening or if it stays in the emergency mode for a prolonged period then our system begins to respond by being primed for further danger. It therefore produces more stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) and the brain becomes wired to watch out for dangers – for example scanning for threats and interpreting possibly neutral information as a danger.
How can trauma be passed down a generation?
There are four key ways in which trauma is passed down. The first is biologically. This is quite a complicated area to sum up briefly for this short blog, but essentially heightened cortisol can be passed through the mother’s placenta and her pre-pregnancy NS can shape that of her developing baby too*. What this means for the baby after they are born, is that they are more sensitive to the effects of their own release of cortisol i.e. stressful events feel more stressful for them so they need more of the calming presence from caregivers to manage their upset.
A second way is from the ongoing effect of the parents’ own over-sensitive nervous system on their behaviours and therefore their ability to bond or be attuned to their children. If they are jumpy, irritable, easily stressed and fearful then this impacts on their parenting style – perhaps they tried to wrap you in cotton wool and made it hard for you to really experience the world; or the opposite may be true – where they couldn’t cope with life so left you to cope with life’s knocks solo. A parent who is fearful of you falling over or trying new things is conveying a strong message: “the world is unsafe and I don’t feel like you will be OK”. Children take their lead from their parents about how to be in the world so if this was the take-home message then it will undoubtable have increased your belief in your ability to cope with difficult situations and tendency to worry.
Thirdly, if the trauma was relational (i.e. trauma within a relationship such as domestic abuse or childhood abuse) this reduces the release of the calming hormone oxytocin (which is released through connecting with family and friends -a comforting voice or a hug for example). Oxytocin is an antidote to cortisol so it’s very important for calming the nervous system. If your parents’ trauma interfered with this then they may not be good at calming themselves nor would they have understood the value in hugging you or talking through problems calmly when you were anxious or upset.
Fourth – a trauma can deeply affect someone’s sense of identity. This has been spoken about a lot in the case of collective trauma** (when everyone feels their sense of purpose has been suddenly taken from them) but it is still very relevant in individual trauma, perhaps even more so as this is more isolating.
What can I do about Intergenerational Trauma?
This depends on the impact it’s had on you so this question isn’t easy to answer in a short blog, but there are likely to be two areas to focus on.
1. Relationships with your family
For some people they might need to work on creating boundaries with their parents to help them step back slightly from behaviours and patterns that are unhealthy for them. This could mean spending less time with them and being clear on when you are able to see them to manage their expectations. But for others there is potential to reach out and try talking to their family in an honest way, perhaps through family therapy or simply in a way that is acknowledging their trauma.
2. Overcoming the effects of the intergenerational trauma on yourself.
This might be through creating meaningful relationships with others in your life; learning how to overcome the low self-esteem, anxiety, sleep difficulties or other issues through therapy. In sessions with my clients we may work directly on areas relating to their family past for example it’s possible to process your parents trauma as well as your own. Or we may work on rebuilding self-confidence and learning the skills that you didn’t get a chance to hone as a child because your parents weren’t able to support you with it themselves.
Found this helpful?
You might find my blog post about Little T And Big T traumas helpful too.
* Enlow, Devick, Brunst, Lipton, Coull & Wright (2017). Maternal Lifetime Trauma Exposure, Prenatal Cortisol, and Infant Negative Affectivity, Infancy, 22, 492-513.
** Frankle, V. (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning. New York, Simon & Schuster