intergenerational trauma

What is Intergenerational Trauma and Who Does It Impact?

As I sit down to write this in front of my blank page, I am noticing a hesitation. It is a feeling of anxiety creeping in to take centre stage in my thoughts. Why does thinking about generational trauma make me feel this way? I think it is a daunting realisation that for once, I may not have the words. 

Struggling with generational trauma

For once, I may not be able to tell you something that is helpful, perhaps because I have nothing helpful to tell myself. In the same moment, I can recognise that I am not alone with this. I know that some of us may struggle with the topic of generational trauma because of the pieces of our history that are not known to us, because of the conversations that have been lost to time.  

How intergenerational trauma starts

Generational Trauma starts with our grandparent’s experience of a traumatic event. In the South Asian community this could be the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Partition of India, the expulsion of South Asians from East Africa and many more historical events. It could also start with the trauma of our grandparents’ upbringings where they witnessed domestic violence or were victims of abuse. 

My Family’s Experience

In my family, such stories are never told. My ancestor’s past is a mostly empty book with a few fleeting sentences from reluctant authors. However, just because something isn’t told, it doesn’t mean it is not remembered by the people who lived it. It doesn’t mean that they did not continue to live it throughout their lifetimes and that the effects of their trauma weren’t felt by those close to them.  

How trauma is passed down from one generation to the next

When I asked my parents about my grandparents, they were mostly able to tell me when they got married, how many siblings they had, what they did for a living and how they died. Occasionally my parents would share memories, but often these memories where about the strict rules they had to follow when they were growing up. Some of the stories they tell me sound abusive and unfair. 

Some of them are riddled with sadness and suffering. I am shocked at how normal they find these things. 

The Impact of Parents’ Trauma

As I fill in the gaps, I realise that my grandparent’s trauma was never truly shared with their children. My parents only faced the consequence of it, in the form of domestic violence, emotional abuse and patriarchy. They never really understood why their parents behaved the way they did, nor did they question it. Their attitude to the trauma they experienced from their parents was the same as the way their parents’ experienced trauma, they just got on with it. 

Hardship was part of the test of life. There was no story for them to tell and no story for me to hear.  

Unacknowledged trauma

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the reality is that trauma can change the way our brains work. If our parents experienced trauma from their parents, the effects may have gone unnoticed. They could have depression, anxiety, OCD, substance abuse problems or other mental health issues. 

Sadly, many of us may never really know due to the older generation’s reluctance to address mental health. Instead, their denial pushes the problem through to the next generation, ours.  

How parents’ trauma affects their children

This can show up in codependent relationships with our parents, or it could be extreme feelings of guilt around taking care of them. For a lot of us, never really understanding what is triggering our parents can lead us to live in a constant state of anxiety. If we don’t know what is making them so angry or upset, we can become fearful of when the next physical or emotional blow might strike, even when we are not at risk. 

The creation of unhealthy relationships

Others may be heavily affected by systems of patriarchy that have been passed down. If our mothers and grandmothers were oppressed and taught to ignore their own needs in the service of men, we may learn this too, and unconsciously gravitate towards this in our relationships. With all of these examples, we may seek out unhealthy relationships that replicate these familiar patterns of being, causing us to continue down a path of further trauma.   

Remedying generational trauma

Generational trauma travels through our lineage. Its journey is across borders and time, spreading from person to person. The remedy is not to continue to repeat the whispering echoes of the past. It is to find our voice; it is to speak louder. 

Exploring our own traumas

Exploring our own traumas can make us more aware of how we have been affected by the generations before us, and we can use this to change our futures. After writing this I realise that even if the pieces of the past are missing, I do have a story to tell. It is my own. 

What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma, or intergenerational trauma is not experienced by one person. It travels and effects one generation to the next. This was first recognised by Vivian M. Rakoff and his colleagues in 1966.

Generational Trauma Study

Him and his team documented the effects of psychological distress on the children of Holocaust survivors. They discovered high rates of distress from second hand experiences from the parents. You can read more about this study here.

Who is effected?

In theory, any form of prolonged and extreme mental and physical stress can have an effect on second hand experiencers. This adverse psychological effects can cause further issue and may require support.

“Trauma affects genetic processes, leading to traumatic reactivity being heightened in populations who experience a great deal of trauma,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist and author Gayani DeSilva, MD.

“If our mothers and grandmothers were oppressed and taught to ignore their own needs in the service of men, we may learn this too, and unconsciously gravitate towards this in our relationships.”