What Is Intergenerational Trauma, And How Does It Happen?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Trauma-related mental health conditions can arise from various traumatic events. While individuals are often familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is another possible result of traumatic experiences with the potential to span multiple generations, often known as intergenerational trauma. 

To understand how trauma can be passed down through generations, it can be helpful to examine intergenerational trauma in more detail, including its possible causes, how it manifests, its impacts on families, and how therapy may be a valuable resource for managing it. 

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What is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is a term used to describe the idea that trauma may be passed down from one generation in a family to the next—for example, from a mother to her child. Other terms that have been associated with this concept include "transgenerational trauma," "multigenerational trauma," and "generational trauma." 

The idea behind intergenerational trauma is that trauma may continue to have effects on the descendants of those who had a traumatic experience in the past. Some research suggests that a person may experience effects stemming from a traumatic event that happened to their ancestors, even if they did not directly experience it. For instance, a 2021 study found that the children of mothers who had adverse childhood experiences were at an increased risk of behavioral problems and depressive symptoms.

Intergenerational trauma may affect those whose parents, grandparents, or ancestors experienced systemic oppression, abuse, natural disasters, or other singular or general forms of trauma. 

What are the causes of intergenerational trauma?

Research on intergenerational trauma and its potential mechanisms is still evolving. However, several potential causes for trauma being passed down between generations have been proposed. These include the direct impacts of trauma on individuals in the family and a concept known as "epigenetics." 

The CDC defines epigenetics as the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Epigenetics posits that experiences and other external factors may lead to genetic changes, which may potentially be passed on to one's offspring. For instance, a 2018 study found a higher mortality rate among the sons of fathers who had experienced severe hardship as prisoners of war during the Civil War, indicating that epigenetics may have played a role. However, the concept of epigenetics is still being studied, and much of the research is in its early stages. 

More direct behavioral and mental health factors may also influence intergenerational trauma. For example, PTSD may impact how parents behave and interact with their children, as the disorder may lead to symptoms like social withdrawal, irritability, emotional distancing, or anger. These effects may influence how their children learn to view and interact with the world, potentially leading to unhealthy coping skills or reduced emotional control. This pattern could theoretically repeat itself when the children of trauma survivors grow up and have children of their own, potentially leading to a cycle of intergenerational trauma. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

What are the possible effects of intergenerational trauma?

The symptoms of intergenerational trauma may vary depending on the form of trauma, how many generations it spans, individual coping skills, and other factors. For some, intergenerational trauma may manifest with symptoms similar to symptoms of PTSD, such as:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Depersonalization or derealization
  • Hypervigilance or hyperarousal
  • An increased use of substances 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Irritability or anger
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Emotional distancing

Those affected by intergenerational trauma may also experience effects like:

  • Abuse or neglect
  • Violence
  • Challenges with relationships
  • Challenges with memory
  • Reduced ability to manage emotions or make decisions
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Challenges at work or school
  • Mental illnesses like depression or anxiety

Therapy as a tool for managing intergenerational trauma

While intergenerational trauma may have various potential effects, it could be possible for those affected to manage its symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. Therapy is one resource with this goal in mind. However, what works for one person may not be the same as what works for another, and there may not be a one-size-fits-all therapy modality for addressing intergenerational trauma. 

For those who find it supportive, therapy may help individuals process traumatic experiences or develop strategies for managing their effects. Trauma-informed therapy aims to account for the effects of trauma on individuals' daily lives, behaviors, and responses. 

The following modalities may also be beneficial: 

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): The goal of EMDR therapy is to use specialized eye movements and bilateral brain stimulation to help clients process traumatic experiences without feeling their full impacts. 

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps clients identify unhelpful beliefs and thinking patterns, challenge them, and reframe them in ways that may better serve their mental health and well-being. 

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): Cognitive processing therapy is a specialized form of cognitive-behavioral therapy focused on thoughts and beliefs related to traumatic experiences. 

  • Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS): IFS looks at how trauma impacts the personality. Some trauma survivors experience splits in personality called "parts" (unrelated to dissociative identity disorder). IFS therapists help clients understand these parts and learn to come to terms with those that may remind them of unhealthy family dynamics or challenging circumstances to be fully integrated individuals.
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Alternative support options  

Traumatic experiences, whether direct or indirect, may sometimes result in symptoms that make it difficult to leave the house or commute to a therapist's office. In these cases, online therapy through platforms like BetterHelp may be an appealing alternative, providing the ability to attend therapy remotely through video calls, in-app messaging, or voice calls. 

Online therapy has been studied for its effectiveness in treating various mental illnesses, including trauma-related disorders. For example, a 2017 study found that internet-based CBT was a valuable and cost-effective treatment for various mental health concerns, including PTSD. 

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Intergenerational trauma, sometimes known as transgenerational or multigenerational trauma, is a form of trauma in which traumatic experiences affecting one person may also affect their descendants. Direct and genetic factors have been theorized to play a role in the development of intergenerational trauma. However, research into its exact mechanisms is ongoing. 

Therapy modalities like cognitive processing therapy or internal family systems therapy may be helpful resources for managing the symptoms and effects of intergenerational trauma. If you are interested in exploring therapy, consider contacting a provider online or in your area for further support.

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