Intergenerational Trauma: Its effects and ways to cope

Intergenerational Trauma: Its effects and ways to cope

Intergenerational trauma is trauma that moves through and affects people within a family or community which results from a traumatic event that happened years before the current generation. Intergenerational trauma can affect how individuals within a family or community understand, deal with and heal from trauma (Hill, 2017). Furthermore, traumatic events that cause intergenerational trauma were so traumatic for previous generations of parents, grandparents or ancestors that the previous generations were not able to effectively process their fear, rage and grief (Husinger, 2020). When reflecting upon the ways intergenerational trauma may have affected one’s family, friends, clients or students, it is important to remember that different types of traumatic events may have resulted in setting off intergenerational trauma for different people. Previous generations who experienced trauma in response to immigration, poverty, suicide of loved ones, physical or sexual abuse, alcohol or drug addiction or the loss of children at an early age may affect the way their current generations process trauma (Hunsinger, 2020). There have also been horrific historical traumatic abuses that have targeted communities of different marginalized identities. Dr. Weingarten (2004), current professor at Harvard Medical School and a therapist, found that the grandchildren and children of Holocaust survivors showed the same traumatic symptoms as their family who survived the Holocaust such as having lower than typical cortisol levels (Weingarten, 2004).  Slavery is another horrific traumatic abuse that can lead to intergenerational trauma being experienced by the Black descendants of enslaved ancestors. Dr. DeGruy (2005), a researcher and social worker, refers to this transmission of trauma as post-traumatic slave syndrome.

The effects of intergenerational trauma are palpable and serious. Generational racism can lead to elevated emotional dysregulation in children (Powers et al., 2020). In addition to the psychological effects of intergenerational trauma, children who are experiencing the collective trauma of COVID-19 on top of intergenerational trauma may also be enduring harm to their physical and emotional well-being (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). In terms of academic effects, COVID-19 has also led to the decreased engagement rates of Black and Brown children who are students of predominantly Black and Brown schools, consistently attending virtual school at a rate of 60% to 70% (Jones et. al). Collective trauma such as a pandemic has been found to generally have a negative impact on intergenerational trauma (Jones et al).

So what can be done to either support people who experience intergenerational trauma as allies or personally cope as survivors with the combined traumas of COVID-19 and intergenerational trauma? One major action steps that allies and clinicians can take to support people of color who experience intergenerational trauma is that they can learn more about how systemic causes of intergenerational trauma like systemic racism and white supremacy affect people of color and how they cause trauma (Resler, 2019). Allies and clinicians can additionally support people of color who experience intergenerational trauma by committing to conveying respect when listening to people of color share experiences of intergenerational trauma (Resler, 2019). Respect can be expressed by being respectfully authentic, respecting different perspectives, expressing empathy and being validating of the experiences of people of color (Resler, 2019). You can learn more about different systems of trauma, different examples of intergenerational trauma that has affected people of color and ways to help people of color who have intergenerational trauma
here. People of color who are experiencing intergenerational trauma especially related to racism can begin to cope by acknowledging the emotions that they are feeling related to the trauma as well as connecting themselves to like-minded people who can provide them with validation and support. This
resource has more information about different ways people of color can cope with this type of trauma and provides therapeutic resources.




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