Generational trauma, also referred to as intergenerational, transgenerational, or historical trauma, is a relatively new concept in psychology. One of the first recognized documentations of this phenomena was published in 1966 by Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, when she and her team noted high rates of psychological distress amongst children of Holocaust survivors (DeAngelis, 2019). Since that documentation, those within the trauma field of psychology have turned their research towards possibly explaining this phenomena.
Trauma is defined as an experience or an event a person is directly involved in or is witness to that creates distinctive feelings of fear, helplessness, loss of safety, horror, and so on to mentally or physically harm the individual (Cohn & Morrison, 2018). Generational trauma is thereby defined as the children of trauma survivors who also experience mental or physical harm like that of their parents, even if the children themselves have never endured a trauma. It can occur in families of genocide survivors, oppressed cultures, child and domestic abuse survivors, or even in the children whose parents suffered from a terrible car accident. The question researchers within the field find easier to ask than answer is how does this happen?
Many studies have attempted to answer how trauma is transmitted from parent to child, but there is no one answer or theory. The following studies explained what generational trauma may look like, though as with all symptoms of any condition, they differ for each individual:
The most likely explanation of how trauma reaches generations is simply by word of mouth: survivors who then become parents tell their child of their hardships. DeAngelis described this communication amongst generations as “survival messages.” The problem is what helped parents stay alive during times of genocide or oppression may not be relevant for their children to know because it does not apply to their generation: so rather than help their children, these parents are unintentionally instilling fear.
Empathy also plays a significant role in transmitting trauma between generations. Secure attachment is ideally the relationship between every parent and their child/children, however it has its faults when it comes to generational trauma. Here are some possible ways empathy does more bad than good:
Even though researchers cannot pinpoint the cause behind generational trauma, therapists and other mental health professionals are challenged with treating the trauma anyway. Because generational trauma has so much to do with a person’s identity and sense of self, narrative therapy has shown to be one of the better methods of addressing this phenomena.
The idea of narrative therapy is to have the client openly talk about their life. The therapist writes everything down, and the only time they interrupt is to ask for specific details to truly make the practice like writing an intricate story. Eventually, a book from the client’s birth to present life is constructed. It forces the client to identify important components of their life they may have overlooked--such as why did their mother, who grew up in a post-Depression household, force them to eat everything on their plate? Or why did their father, a victim of child abuse, only speak to the client when they were misbehaving?
One of the many benefits of using narrative therapy for any issue is that it does not erase the problem at large: rather, narrative therapy forces you to rewrite it so you can overcome it. Better yet, it benefits many age groups, so it can help address trauma in multiple generations, not just the youngest who is more likely to seek help.
In their study exploring the effects of narrative exposure therapy, created to treat clients who experienced multiple traumas, Kaltenbach et al. (2020) found participants would report decreased symptoms of depression at various points of their NET sessions, and when it came time to address the trauma, participants were able to control their emotions. This is indicative that literally writing about your life, and not skipping over the hard parts, is beneficial in the long run. In the context of generational trauma, clients see the past their parents (directly or indirectly) created, and no one is truly to blame.
Like Kaltenbach et al., Forstmeier et al. (2020) aimed to show narrative therapy approaches can reconstruct, or rewrite, the memory of traumatic events and transform them into cohesive, non-stressful memory. These researchers used a sample size of 80 Holocaust survivors to implement these ideas, featuring 20-25 sessions of narrative therapy/life review therapy in order for the survivors to see their lives beyond tragedy and despair. These sessions featured “chapters” in which the participants would be prompted to describe multiple aspects of their lives, such as confronting stressors and identifying what could be used to recapture life for meaning. While follow-ups of this study are still in anticipation, it is expected such methods can be beneficial to all ages.
When narrative therapy is used to treat adult survivors of child abuse, it systematically breaks down the client’s trauma to prevent it from carrying into the next generation. This is because the focus of narrative therapy is on the effect of the trauma, not the trauma itself: deconstructing self-blame, guilt, and building their self-esteem is the entire point of narrative therapy (Johnson et al., 2019).
Literally narrating your life as if you are both an author and the main character creates a narrative identity, described as an individual’s internalized, evolving, and integrative story of the self that helps create meaning and person in the individual’s life. Others can inspire our stories, but we create them. In a study where participants were asked to either describe four inspirational and famous Americans or describe four personal and important stories from their own lives, results indicated self-esteem was temporarily boosted when the participants were asked to write about themselves, not famous Americans (Steiner et al., 2019). Even if it was temporary, the fact that narrating your own life can improve your self-esteem is key to treating many components of generational trauma. Again, it suggests that a parents’ or grandparents’ trauma does not have to affect an individual’s life as much as it may, and that the individual can construct a positive identity.
We’ve previously written about the benefits and joys of both gratitude journaling and bullet journaling. One more way to journal is through writing narratives, or writing your own story. You can write a story of your life, or, write letters to your past or former self.
LIFE Intelligence is a science-backed self therapy app. While those with generational trauma and serious needs should seek professional help, LIFE Intelligence can be an affordable and private way to start exploring more about your story, your family attachments, and your relationship with yourself. Some call it a leadership app, while others call it an app for self-discovery. What makes this self-care app so multi-purpose?
LIFE encompasses 9 "Missions" or topics that form a journey of understanding yourself. For example, Mission 1 discusses your thoughts and emotions, while Mission 2 discusses your story, and narrative therapy. Mission 7 talks about form strong relationships, while Mission 8 helps you work through conflicts. The best part about the LIFE app is that you can access these prompts and work through your own revelations whenever you need. Sometimes all it takes is 15 minutes to quietly introspect about your past, and plan for your future.
Cohn, I. G., & Morrison, N. M. V. (2018). Echoes of transgenerational trauma in the lived experiences of Jewish Australian grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Australian Journal of Psychology, 70(3), 199–207.
DeAngelis, T. (2019, February). The legacy of trauma. Monitor on Psychology, 50(2). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-trauma
Forstmeier, S., van der Hal, E., Auerbach, M., Maercker, A., & Brom, D. (2020). Life review therapy for holocaust survivors (LRT-HS): Study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. BMC Psychiatry, 20(1), 1–13.
Garcia, J. L. (2020). Historical trauma and American Indian/Alaska Native youth mental health development and delinquency. New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development, 2020(169), 41–58.
Johnson, D. J., Holyoak, D., & Cravens Pickens, J. (2019). Using Narrative Therapy in the Treatment of Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Context of Couple Therapy. American Journal of Family Therapy, 47(4), 216–231.
Kaltenbach, E., Hermenau, K., Schauer, M., Dohrmann, K., Elbert, T., & Schalinski, I. (2020). Trajectories of posttraumatic stress symptoms during and after Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) in refugees. BMC Psychiatry, 20(1), 1–14.
Muhtz, C., Wittekind, C., Godemann, K., Von Alm, C., Jelinek, L., Yassouridis, A., & Kellner, M. (2016). Mental health in offspring of traumatized refugees with and without post-traumatic stress disorder. Stress & Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 32(4), 367–373.
Steiner, K. L., Pillemer, D. B., & Thomsen, D. K. (2019). Writing about life story chapters increases self-esteem: Three experimental studies. Journal of Personality, 87(5), 962–980.
Welford, E. (2019). Healing the fallout from transgenerational trauma: Supporting clients in making peace with their history. Transactional Analysis Journal, 49(4), 324–338.