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What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Family, Trauma, Therapist Guide
4 min read
large multigenerational family smiling in backyard

Intergenerational Trauma is described as a group of people (or family) who are exposed to traumatic event(s) and/or adversities that were beyond their control that caused distress, which are then passed down to each generation. These events are oftentimes considered taboo topics of discussion, and also complex in nature. 

The introduction of intergenerational trauma in psychiatric literature was in 1966 by VM Rakoff1. This study uncovered behavioral and clinical symptoms in the children of Holocaust survivors. A few of the symptoms that were apparent was an increase in hypervigilance, anxiety, enmeshment in caregivers, and children feeling invalidated and minimization of their life experiences in comparison to what their parents experienced. 

Intergenerational trauma is also linked to changes in a family's epigenetics, which is a set of potentially inheritable changes in the genome that can be induced by environmental events. A generation’s experience on the next generation, and many generations to follow. These markers in our genetics are impacted based on the trauma experienced. As research and advances in molecular biology improved, more recent studies began to show how this epigenetic component is. 

 

Is Intergenerational Trauma Affecting You?

Now that we have a better understanding of what intergenerational trauma is, let’s discuss how to identify whether or not it is affecting you. Some of the common symptoms to be aware of are hypervigilance, unresolved grief, irritability, minimization of feelings, or denial of events or feelings connected to events; however, that does not mean it has to stay this way. 

A factor in breaking intergenerational trauma is by speaking about it, especially speaking up about the feelings associated with the traumatic event(s) and in general, sharing feelings. This can be worked on in therapy with a trauma specific therapist, so that the cycle isn't repeated. The reason this type of trauma gets embedded into the epigenetics of a family is because it is kept inside. 

 

A few questions to ask yourself to see if you’d benefit from speaking about the possibility of intergenerational trauma and its impacts on you are: 

  • Do I ignore my feelings and internalize them, until I get triggered and then have a flood of emotions? 
  • Does my family openly share their feelings, whether good or bad, or are feelings rarely discussed?
  • Am I able to recognize and acknowledge my feelings, or are they disregarded and ignored?
  • Does my family have adaptive coping skills to deal with difficult and intense emotions? 

 

If these questions are making you question how intergenerational trauma may have had, or still has, an impact on your mental health, then maybe it’s time to check-in with a professional for some guidance. It’s okay to not know all the answers, asking for help to answer your questions is a great way to start. 

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About the author: Melania Palor is a LPCC. Their goal as a therapist is to provide a safe space for clients to process their past, improve their present, and achieve goals for their future. They focus on collaborating with clients in developing and implementing plans that are specific to each client, with a strong emphasis on each client’s needs, wants, and values. As clients embark on a therapeutic journey, they like to act as a guide for them as they navigate through their healing. Learn more about Melania or view more work from her on their Frame profile.


Citations:

1 Rakoff, V. M. (1966). Long term effects of the concentration camp experience.