What is intergenerational trauma and how can we break the cycle?

Intergenerational trauma can feel like an unrelenting trap, but it’s time to break free

The generations who raised us invariably have a huge impact on our lives, and the people that we become. As adults, we may find a lot of joy in noticing that we have adopted, for example, our mother’s sense of humour, our grandfather’s agreeableness, or our aunt’s passion. But there’s another side to this coin.

There’s a saying you might have heard of: ‘Hurt people hurt people.’ It’s a very simplistic way of talking about the way that one person’s pain can, often completely unintentionally, affect others. And when it comes to the way this manifests in family relationships, it turns into a well-documented psychological phenomenon.

“Intergenerational trauma is defined as trauma that is transferred from one generation of trauma survivors on to the second, and further generations, through genetics and experiences,” counsellor Melanie Kirk says. “This means that even though the original trauma may not have been experienced first-hand, the feelings, symptoms, and behaviours can live on.”

The trauma can be personal, – for example, the parent might have experienced abuse, been the victim of a serious crime, or have suffered loss or bereavement. Or, the trauma could be shared – Melanie points to the example of Holocaust survivors.

“In 2015, a psychiatry and neuroscience professor called Dr Rachel Yehuda directed a team of researchers, and conducted a study on the descendants of Holocaust survivors,” she explains. “It was discovered that the descendants had low levels of cortisol (the hormone that is released during times of stress, which helps to bring down the high levels of adrenaline released when a ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered).

“It was concluded that if one parent has experienced PTSD then future generations may be more likely to inherit the gene adaptation caused by a traumatic event. This in turn could result in the descendant being more susceptible to conditions such as depression and anxiety. Comparable studies were also carried out on the survivors and descendants of 9/11, which revealed similar results.”

What does intergenerational trauma look like?

In the same way that trauma will present differently from person to person, intergenerational trauma does, too. It’s a complex experience, and one that is best explored with the help of a mental health professional. That said, there are common themes.

Besides the genetic impact that Melanie previously explained, if the parent has experienced the trauma, it may affect the way that they interact with their child – they may find it more difficult to regulate their emotions, or to model appropriate coping behaviours to their children. In practice, this may look like a reduced tolerance to stress – perhaps finding they become overwhelmed or angry quickly – or they may find it more challenging to express love and affection. All this may then affect their children’s behaviour and coping mechanisms, and the way they go on to parent, or treat the people around them.

What’s more, if the parent’s trauma has resulted in them developing specific fears, this anxiety may be passed down. For example, if their trauma stems from an accident, they may then be overcautious around similar activities, or even ban them completely, continuing that fear and affecting how their children navigate the world themselves.

“If you think or feel something that doesn’t fit within the context of your life, it is possible that this thought or feeling is an inherited one,” Melanie explains. “Working with a therapist can be a good way of exploring this and supporting the excavation of information needed to attach new meanings to your stories, and create deeper understanding. It can also help to improve your insight and awareness around your unconscious processes, sensitivities, and trigger points.”

How can I break the cycle?

Whether you are the child of someone who has experienced trauma, or you are the parent, there are many ways that you can begin to address what is in front of you, and to stop patterns of trauma and distress from continuing.

Melanie suggests working through the following touchpoint questions:

Invest some time into considering some of the elements of yourself you would like to be different. Why is this important to you? What difference would this make if they were improved upon?

Are there certain skills that you don’t feel you were able to learn or develop fully? If so, what are they? How could you support yourself to learn them now? Who could help you with this?

Where do your sensitivities lie? What themes do you notice around what upsets you, or makes you angry? Why do you think that is? What value or boundary is being crossed in those moments?

What do you think your children would/have inherited from you? How do you feel about this? How have your own experiences of being parented impacted on the way that you would/do parent now? How do you think your children would describe you and your relationship? Is it similar or different to the relationship you have/had with your own parents?

Trauma may also lead to the formation of new strengths – which is important to acknowledge. Take time to reflect on the helpful characteristics that may have also been witnessed or inherited by your family of origin.

The rat and the cherry blossom

“Studies at the Emory School of Medicine, in Atlanta, were conducted to test the idea that memories can be passed down through DNA,” Melanie explains. “The experiment exposed rats to the scent of cherry blossom, while they received a small electric shock. It isn’t surprising to find that the rats then demonstrated an aversion to the scent, which caused them to become visibly agitated when exposed.

“What was surprising, is that the rat’s pups were observed to have the same reaction, even though they had never previously been exposed to the scent. It was suggested that instilling fear in the rat did trigger changes in gene function, which were then transmitted to the offspring.”

Starting down a new path

Managing trauma that has built up over multiple lifetimes is not easy. But, addressing it can lead to personal growth and happiness, and it can pave the way for healthier and happier generations to come.

If you are struggling and would like to seek support, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.