A Peek at Transgenerational Trauma

Transgenerational trauma is the notion of unhealed issues of prior generations being expressed in current generations. In some cases these unhealed issues can continue for thousands of years. Transgenerational trauma often shows itself in repeated patterns (stories) of personal healing issues in each generation. Often these are issues that are not healed in a generation that are passed on through covert and overt means. Physically, trauma has been shown to create changes in genetic expression that could be passed on to the next generations. Psychologically, the following mechanisms seem to occur in families and communities.

1. Over disclosure by adults to children of their past traumas: Bearing witness to traumatic experiences can challenge even the most firmly held beliefs that the world is a safe place. When families immigrate to new countries due to genocide, loss of ancestral lands and wars they often live together in the same areas, such as areas in the states known as Chinatown, Little Italy, etc. and try to maintain their language and culture and therefore isolate from the broader society. There is safety in familiarity.

2. Silence: The conspiracy of silence (society and individual) helps maintain and exacerbate the effects of trauma. It might be an empathetic response to not stir up the issues, or a parent may react with anxiety, extreme rage, or flashback. My father never taught us Italian although that is all he spoke in his childhood home. Italians were discriminated against when they came to the United States (like most new immigrants). When he was in the first grade they kept him and most of his friends back because they could not speak English. A note was sent home to my immigrant grandparents: “Does not understand English.” He became what I term hysterically assimilated.

3. Identification: Children tend to feel responsible for parental distress and if only good enough, parents would not be so angry or sad or bad things will not happen. Children themselves may experience a type of survivor guilt. A very good friend of mine and fellow therapist was a proud survivor of the Nazi camps in the Netherlands. He was very young when he was liberated; however he lost multiple family members and friends. We had the pleasure of learning Hypnotherapy together. As I had him in a very nice and relaxed trance I used a train traveling on the tracks metaphor. He immediately started crying and said “I am sorry Papa.” When we processed this event he said that he remembered that he was playing loudly with his friends (he was 2 years old) when the Gestapo heard him (in his mind he was the cause) and came to the door and took his grandfather away. At that time he heard a train. He stated that he had held that guilt for decades. He never saw his beloved grandfather again.

4. Reenactment: Trauma survivors tend to reenact their traumas. For example, a survivor of the 9/11 attack in New York that I worked with in therapy reported to me that she was holding her daughters hand in a grocery store, when a woman in a hajib walked by. The mother reported that she tightened the grip on the child’s hand. She also reported that she felt intense guilt at her obvious prejudice and how she may be shaping her daughters views. This seems innocent enough: however there is a message of fear that is transferred from mother to daughter. The daughter was not born until 2005.

Dr. Michael Yellowbird speaks to the genocide of the aboriginal people of the United States and Canada and the loss of land and identity. Many tribal traditions have ceremonies for healing the ancestors and believe the ancestors call out to them for healing help. The rituals are rooted in a belief and hope that if the ancestors heal than the ensuing generations do not have to deal with the affects of trauma.

There are many other methods that are in use such as StoryCorps where people can sit and report their histories. Also Bowenian methods of using Genograms in therapy sessions help the client hold history in his/her hands and see the transmission of trauma and resilience that shapes psychological, behavioral and spiritual epistemologies. Understanding the patterns allows us to create rituals and ceremonies for the treatment and healing of transgenerational trauma.