What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 09, 2022
3 min read

If you have ancestors or older relatives who went through a very distressing or oppressive event, their emotional and behavioral reactions could ripple through the generations of your family and affect you. This is called intergenerational trauma. You might also hear it called generational trauma, historical trauma, or multigenerational trauma.

It may stem from personal trauma, such as child or domestic abuse, or from trauma that a specific cultural, racial, or ethnic group endured. It’s been tied to major events like wars, slavery, the Holocaust, and colonial violence against Native Americans. It might even result from natural disasters like a flood, earthquake, or pandemic.

Intergenerational trauma could take a toll on your health in a number of ways. The reactions can be different for each generation, but they could include:

  • Shame
  • Anxiety and guilt
  • Feeling helpless or vulnerable
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Higher chances of suicide
  • High rates of heart disease
  • Substance abuse
  • Relationship troubles
  • A hard time controlling aggressive feelings
  • Extreme reactions to stress
  • Damaged cultural identity (the sense of belonging to a larger group)

Still, many people have no obvious effects from trauma that past generations of their family went through.

The exact causes aren’t clear. But some experts think the original traumatic event could affect your relatives’ relationship skills, personal behavior, and attitudes and beliefs in ways that affect future generations of your family.

How your parents talk with you about the traumatic event (or fail to talk about it) and the way your family functions seem to play important roles in whether trauma gets passed down. For example, a parent’s experience of trauma might affect their parenting skills and play a role in their children’s behavior problems.

Researchers are also looking into the possible role of “epigenetic changes.” The idea is that your environment could cause changes that affect the way your genes work, and these changes could be passed on to younger generations.

Epigenetic changes can affect how your body reads a DNA sequence. But they’re reversible and don’t change DNA sequences like gene mutations do.

Most studies of intergenerational trauma have focused on descendants of people who endured a historical traumatic event. That includes:

  • Holocaust survivors who survived concentration camps
  • African American people who lived through years of slavery, segregation, or systemic racism
  • Native Americans who endured colonial massacres or had their children taken from them and placed in boarding schools due to federal policies
  • Japanese Americans who were forced to live in internment (detention) camps during World War II
  • Veterans of the Vietnam War

Some experts say we need more research into transgenerational trauma among relatives of people with disabilities. Through history, some groups of disabled people have gone through trauma due to things like groundless biases, discrimination, forced sterilization or psychiatric treatment, and more.

It’s also thought that intergenerational trauma can also affect family members of people who’ve endured traumas such as:

  • Murder or rape
  • Natural disasters
  • Physical, sexual, or mental abuse
  • Substance abuse
  • Abandonment or neglect
  • Serious injury, illness, or untreated mental illness
  • Poverty and food insecurity

We need more research to figure out which treatments work best for taking charge of intergenerational trauma.

If you think you or a loved one might have symptoms, start by talking to your doctor. They may be able to treat mental health conditions or other medical problems that might be tied to intergenerational trauma.

They may also refer you to an experienced mental health professional (like a psychologist or a licensed therapist) who could help you:

  • Trace your family’s history of trauma
  • Manage anger, stress, or numbness that might be tied to your family history
  • Discuss current-day traumas, like racism, that might be linked to the original trauma
  • Practice self-care techniques like mindfulness and exercise
  • Spot things that might trigger the effects of trauma for you and show you how to limit them

Choose a doctor or therapist who’s respectful of your culture, race, or ethnicity.

Depending on your background and your goals for treatment, you may be able to find a professional who helps you reconnect with your ancestors’ culture and traditions to help you work through the grief of old traumas. Some treatment methods involve traditional healing methods and ceremonial practices.