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Ancestral Wounds: Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

August 23rd, 2021 · No Comments · intergenerational transmission of trauma

In recent times we’ve become more aware of intergenerational transmission of trauma, and of how traumatic wounding gets passed from generation to generation.

PHOTO: Stock Photo Secrets

What exactly do we mean by intergenerational transmission of trauma? Well, for a long time, we’ve know that the psychological wounding of parents can be passed on to their children. In fact, some of the most important early documentation of this was in the work of Sigmund Freud, the famous Viennese psychoanalyst, who often showed the linkages between the coping issues of parents and children in his writings.

Yet, it’s only in much more recent times that we’ve started to understand the ways in which trauma can be transmitted from generation to generation. One of the most studied groups in this respect are the families and descendants of holocaust survivors. Quite a number of studies have shown that otherwise healthy children of parents who survived the holocaust are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if a traumatic event occurs in their lives. There seems to be strong evidence that there is a similar effect with grandchildren of holocaust survivors. There also seems to be evidence of an increased predisposition to anxiety and depression in these groups.

Now there is also strong support in the research for similar effects among other groups. The research of Hofstra University Prof. Robert Motta and colleagues suggests strongly that the children of war veterans carry elements of trauma transmitted by a veteran parent and other studies have shown the same. It seems to be that whenever a parent carries trauma, there is a good chance that the children and even the grandchildren will be affected by it.

How Do I Know if I’m Suffering from Intergenerational Trauma?

How would you know whether you’re subject to intergenerational trauma? The first question to ask would be whether you are the child or grandchild of parents who suffer from PTSD, or who have been subject to serious traumatic experiences. This might be something like the Holocaust, being a forced migrant or a refugee, or experiencing a war which would represent trauma connected to a large historical event. On the other hand, a parent who has been subject to trauma such as physical or emotional abuse that has come down through the generations may also transmit that trauma to a child.

Please be aware that the fact that a parent who has been subject to trauma transmits that trauma to his or her child does not mean that the parent can’t also transmit good things. The parent may have many wonderful attributes from which the child benefits, while still also transmitting trauma.

How Can I Get on a Healing Path?

One of the biggest steps to moving toward the healing of intergenerational transmission of trauma is recognizing that a parent’s trauma has impacted your view of the world, and your responses to the world. Often someone who has been subject to intergenerationally transmitted trauma is strongly motivated to make the world safe and predictable, and the individual may notice that tendency showing up in her life in many different ways, such as obsessive-compulsive tendencies, or perfectionist tendencies that are aimed at having things turn out with perfect results. The child of a parent who has suffered trauma may have found that the parent has trouble with regulating their emotions and with soothing themselves into a calm state. This may mean that the child faces similar challenges in regulating their emotions and finding calm. If you experience any of these tendencies it’s important to ask yourself if any of this can have come about as the result of a parent’s trauma.

Intergenerational Transmission of Resilience?

Although the concept of intergenerational transmission of trauma is fairly new, C.G. Jung anticipated some of its key aspects in his writings. At one point in his writings, Jung states,

The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.

In the context of intergenerational trauma, the “unlived life of the parents” is represented by the ways in which the parent’s trauma has gone untreated, and has often dominated the family life of the individual. Depth psychotherapists are aware that, among other things, we inherit our family’s story and perspective about the nature of life. Families that have unresolved trauma, depression or anxiety can easily pass harmful coping strategies and views of life rooted in fear and mistrust onto future generations.

While trauma can be transmitted down the generations, so can the capacity for resilience and for overcoming and resolving trauma. From this perspective, one of the best things and most hopeful things you can do for your kids and for future generations is to work on yourself. Not only does it help you: the intergenerational transmission of resilience to those who follow after us provides a strong sense of empowerment and that can be an important part of our journey towards wholeness.

With every good wish for your personal journey,

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst

Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional


© 2021 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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