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The Psychology of Generational Trauma:
Did you know trauma can time-travel?
Yep, that’s right. Studies suggest the effect of a traumatic event can be passed down like an heirloom generation to generation.
Table of Contents
What is Generational Trauma?
Generational trauma (aka trans-generational trauma) is a phenomenon first observed in Holocaust survivors and their children during the 50’s and 60’s. (Find out more about this topic in this article).
It happens when one member of the family experiences a life altering trauma but doesn’t properly deal with it. Leaving successive generations of their family to wrestle with a trauma that wasn’t theirs to begin with.
It’s hypothesized that Generational Trauma can be handed down in a number of ways. One way is through epigenetics. These are changes to genes caused by biological stress.
It can also be passed through emotionally toxic parenting. And/or it can even be spread through a culture’s shared history (myths, scary stories, and legends).
What Does Generational Trauma Look Like?
Generational trauma can happen to any family. Any time. It can get better or worse depending on the actions, opportunities and psychoeducation of each family member. It really can be a luck of the draw.
However, there are certain patterns that are characteristic of generational trauma. To better explain the concept I’ve created the hypothetical tale of Jakob and his family.
Jakob’s family is plagued with mental health issues all the way from WWII to present day. Yet they are resilient, hopeful and hardy people who refuse to give up.
Follow along to see how generational trauma spreads.
Jakob’s Family – A Case Study in Generational Trauma
Jakob is a holocaust survivor and 1st generation immigrant to the United States in 1949. He comes to America as a refugee from Poland looking to put his past behind him.
But his past always seems to catch up.
Our protagonist is man who’s understandably developed PTSD after experiencing the horrors of Dachau. He has been forever changed by the things he’s seen and done.
Unfortunately, he lives in a time when mental health is not well understood.
So Jakob’s stress disorder remains untreated.
He gets married in 1960 and has his first child, William, the same year. Two years later, along comes Mary, his second child.
Jakob is a hard working man who finds success as a steamfitter in New York City. He’s a family man with a nice home, a car, and money in the bank.
In secret, however, Jakob can’t escape the nightmares, flashbacks, and survivor’s guilt he feels. He’s always felt he could’ve done more. More to save his mother and sisters. More to fight back.
He slowly turns to alcohol to dull the pain. He drinks to quiet the accusatory voice in his head. His addiction has a serious effect on his family. They deal with an increasingly angry and often violent father.
In order to cope, the family starts to develop negative routines of their own. William starts fights at school, abuses drugs and lashes out at his parents. Mary is plagued by a severe anxiety disorder.
The First Generation: Dealing With Parental Trauma
One of the main ways generational trauma operates is through Parental Trauma. This is when a caregiver emotionally damages their child. All because of the parent’s own unresolved mental health issues.
Jakob’s two children are deeply affected by their father’s inability to soothe his emotions. In time, they will transmit the pain inflicted on them to their own children.
But we’ll talk more about that in a minute.
Both William and Mary enter adult life with untreated Complex Post – Traumatic Stress disorder a response to sustained stress during childhood.
This obviously has a huge effect on the rest of their lives.
In William’s case, he gets incarcerated in 1981 for domestic violence. At the age of 21 he’s sentenced to spend the rest of his formative years behind bars.
When he finally gets out he quickly falls into the same patterns of addiction. Only now the stress is worse due to the stigma of being an unemployable felon.
William never seems to get back on his feet. He lives out the rest of his days in and out of rehab and homeless shelters. Eventually, he settles in a retirement community for the chronically mentally ill. There he passes from a heart attack at the age of 65.
Perfection and Generational Trauma
Meanwhile, Mary is doing better. At least on the surface.
As a child, Mary was shielded from her father’s physical violence by her brother. But that doesn’t mean she’s not unscathed.
Because she wasn’t physically abused she feels deeply responsible for both her father’s pain as well as her brother’s.
This leaves her with a smoldering case of guilt and low self-esteem. She makes up for this by becoming a perfectionist. She also enables William’s bad behavior.
By 1982, Mary’s got a loving husband and a couple of children. But her unquenchable anxiety makes life anything but happy. She has to be in control of everything. And everyone.
Her need for control strains her marriage. A convert to Catholicism, Mary doesn’t believe in divorce and remains in the unhappy union. This causes further stress to her children, her husband, and herself.
The Second Generation: Abandonment, Addiction, and perfection
As it becomes diffuse through generations, this kind of trauma can begin to manifest different ways. Addictions, abandonment issues, and unfathomable anxiety are all hallmarks of generational trauma.
Abandonment and Generational Trauma
The next generation of children, Jakob’s grandkids, have it even worse.
Due to drug addiction and homelessness William’s child, Theo, is traumatized by parental abandonment. At the age of 5 he’s transferred to foster care while his father is incarcerated.
Theo bounces around from home to home, occasionally living with his paternal grand-parents. His behavioral issues make school impossible. He feels generally unwanted everywhere he goes.
He gets help from family as well as community support but his life is too chaotic for him to make any meaningful change until his 20’s. More on that later.
Perfection: A More Insidious Disease
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Mary’s children (Theo’s cousins, Elsa and Eva) have too much structure; often feeling smothered, controlled, and never good enough.
In addition, since Mary had a better relationship with her father, her side of the family is very close to Jakob. This is where cultural influence, another transmitter of generational trauma, comes into play.
The granddaughters grow up hearing so much about what the Holocaust did to their ancestors they internalize the terror and guilt of the situation all over again.
This all combines to give them nervous complexes.
Elsa picks up her mother’s perfectionist streak. She graduates top of her class in high school and college before attaining a Ph.D. in neurobiology. She goes on to teach at a prestigious college and marries well.
Eva, on the other hand, rebels violently.
Eva struggles heavily with a mood disorder and addiction throughout her twenties. She is frequently hospitalized. Eventually she’s diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. This is a condition that people with past trauma are thirteen times more often than those who don’t have a history of trauma.
She’s an incredible artist, but has a hard time keeping a day job due to her mental illness. Eventually she goes on SSID to provide for herself and her young son.
The Last Generation: Hope for a New Future
As you can see – generational trauma has really hit this family hard. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.
Improving societal understanding of mental health along with better socioeconomic opportunities help new members of the family deal with the legacy of trauma.
Cultural Shocks Add on to the Trauma
Back to Theo. By 2005, a 20 year old Theo has met the girl of his dreams. He cleans up his act and they have two children together: Theo J.R. and Leonore.
All is right with the world. For a little bit at least.
In 2008, the stock market crashes as the housing market busts. Theo and his wife both lose their stable jobs and the 401ks they were just starting to build. Any savings they had are lost.
Sustained cultural shocks like the downturn of 2008 can exacerbate trans-generational trauma. This occurs by adding more fear, trauma and uncertainty onto parents and kids alike.
Because of his abandonment issues, Theo is cold and stand-offish. He has trouble connecting even with his wife and children. This behavior only gets worse during times of stress. He copes by gambling and turning back to drugs.
At some point, Theo’s wife can’t handle it any longer. She takes the kids and leaves.
Over the next two years, Theo battles with a serious bout of depression experiencing homelessness and a relapse into addiction. In 2010, Theo loses his battle with mental illness. He commits suicide at the age of 27.
Theo JR and Leonore are forever impacted by their father’s death. Both struggle heavily with emotional disregulation, anxiety, and depression well into their adult lives.
Leonore becomes a nun after many, many years of hardship, eventually finding true happiness in serving others.
Theo JR starts his own family with his husband. All three of their children are adopted from the foster care system. Their eldest son is named Theodore in honor of his grandfather. They are very loved and have a happy life.
Perfectionism Rears its Ugly Head
Elsa’s daughter, Jane, has been brought up in a stable, loving household. However as she gets into high school around 2012, her parents notice disturbing behavior they can’t seem to explain.
Jane starts self-harming frequently and feels numb most of the time. Elsa and her husband are baffled since Jane has all the love and support she could need. As far as they know, no terrible trauma has befallen their daughter.
They do everything they can for Jane including therapy. One day, the counselor pulls Elsa to the side. Gently she asks Elsa to give a detailed family history.
An ah-ha moment is reached as Elsa relates her own struggles with OCD as well as her mother’s control issues. With the help of family counseling, ERP therapy and medication Jane starts to be able to manage her disorder.
She still struggles but it’s easier now she has the tools to cope. She wants to be a therapist when she graduates.
Growing Up With Feelings of Abandonment
Jane’s cousin, Thomas, is in a similar boat dealing with depression and anxiety. His parents get divorced during his childhood and he lives with his mom, Eva.
Even though she’s radically improved her lifestyle, Eva still struggles to control her BPD. It’s hard for her to provide an emotionally stable home for Thomas.
Thomas grows up feeling abandoned by both his mother and father. He often wrestles with feelings of sadness, mood swings, and suicidal thoughts he can’t seem to control.
He’s often hospitalized because of his mood disorder. This goes on until he completes a 90 day course based on mindfulness provided by an Intensive Outpatient facility. It changes his life.
Eventually, like his cousin, he finds the right combination of therapy, medications, and positive coping skills. He builds a support network around him to make the bad days a little better.
Thomas goes to trade school for HVAC repair and eventually goes on to own his own business. He teaches yoga on the side and runs a successful YouTube channel called “The Hot Yogi.”
His mom is very proud.
Lessons From Jakob’s Family
Jakob’s family is hypothetical. However, they are far from unique. Many real life families follow these exact patterns of trauma transfusion.
Without even knowing it, parents hand down their grief, sadness, addictions and biases. It’s truly amazing the effect trauma can have many years after it’s passed.
It also pays to remember, though, families also hand down their resiliency, love, and strength.
Jakob’s brood didn’t fizzle out to nothing. In fact, for the most part, they thrived. And in the end discovered ways to shape a better world for themselves.
So there’s always a chance to make a new choice as Jakob’s great-grandkids did.
If you’re reading this, you might be the one to make that difference in your family’s future. If you feel like there’s no explanation for your mental illness or if you’re just plain curious I urge you to ask the following questions.
What emotional patterns/coping mechanisms does your family participate in?
What life changing cultural events did your ancestors go through?
Could it be possible your family is handing down things that might be unhelpful?
How did your parents and their parents get along?
How do you feel about your parents now that you are an adult?
Which negative patterns can you change moving forward with your own family?
I’d love to hear what you come up with! Until then.
The transgenerational trauma and resilience genogram:
Rachael D. Goodman Counseling and Development Program, College of Education and Human Development, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA.
If you think your family might be affected by this type of trauma – you might benefit from downloading our quick educational guide on the subject:
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