Updated: Mar 11
Intergenerational trauma is a complex and often misunderstood concept that refers to the transmission of traumatic experiences and their psychological, emotional, and even physical effects from one generation to another. While the idea of trauma being passed down through generations may seem abstract, it has been documented in numerous studies and anyone that has interacted with multiple generations of a family can begin to see patterns emerge. In this blog, we will delve deeper into what intergenerational trauma is, how it occurs, and its impact on individuals and families. We will also explore healing and breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Trauma is never the end of the story.
Intergenerational trauma is a type of trauma that can be caused by a variety of events, such as war, genocide, slavery, natural disasters, and other forms of violence or trauma. The impact of intergenerational trauma can be felt across multiple generations, as trauma symptoms can manifest in ways that affect the mental and physical health of individuals, families, and communities. There is emerging research that trauma and chronic stress in families can impact the expression of genes related to autoimmune disease, addiction, and obesity. However, more often than not, intergenerational trauma manifests in the ways that family members can relate to themselves, others, and, ultimately, future generations.
In families, intergenerational trauma can cause a breakdown in communication, emotional distancing, and strained relationships. Traumatic experiences can create a sense of mistrust and disconnection between family members, leading to a lack of support and understanding. Additionally, intergenerational trauma can affect the way family members cope with stress and adversity. Children who grow up in families affected by trauma may struggle with emotional regulation, experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, and may be at a higher risk of developing mental health issues as adults.
Though this might seem like a light-hearted example, the recent Disney movie Encanto is an excellent illustration of the various roles and patterns that families can become stuck in as a response to intergenerational trauma. We can see rigidity in the roles that each family member is stuck in and the pressure that causes. In the song “Surface Pressure,” Luisa sings about the crushing weight she feels to hold it all together and to be of service to her family. The bridge of the song ends with her musing about what it would be like to just be able to relax and not be “on” all the time. This sentiment is mirrored in Isabela’s song “What Else Can I Do?” where she begins to explore what it would be like if she could express all parts of herself and not live up to family expectations. We can also see what happens in the movie to family members who do break the mold and tell the truth. Maribel is often on the outside of the family and the family literally sings an entire song about how they will not talk about their unusual family member Bruno. His character is often blamed for things that go wrong, despite his efforts to do what’s best and speak honestly. We also see other family members that have difficulty regulating their emotions. Abuela is the matriarch of the family that tries to keep everyone in their roles, and we learn throughout the movie that this anger stems from fear of losing her family after tragically losing her husband due to political violence. It's only when Maribel speaks the truth of the family’s dynamics and they receive care and compassion from their community that the family can let go of their rigid roles and truly be and love their authentic selves.
What we can see in Encanto is that traumatized families become stuck in rigid patterns that get passed on to subsequent generations if there is no change or intervention. We can also see that these patterns often develop from attempts to cope with the trauma that has occurred. To stick with our cinematic example, Abuela becomes a single mother and has to raise three children all on her own in a new place without any support. She copes by trying to protect the security of her family, avoiding conflict, and trying not to squander the gifts that her children have been given. There was no one there to help her cope with her emotions, comfort her in her grieving, or even provide practical support in caring for her children. No wonder she struggled with fear and anger. This does not excuse her behavior towards Maribel and Bruno, but it does give us compassion for the grandmother who was living in fear.
Breaking the intergenerational cycle of trauma is not easy work. One of the biggest barriers to breaking the cycle is the reaction of the family to someone who wants to step outside of the family equilibrium to call out dysfunctional behavior, set boundaries, or take on a role that is not the one the family has prescribed. As we know, the family system has developed this way to create some sense of safety after experiencing trauma, and changes to the family dynamic often feel very unsafe for other family members who are not ready to confront their behavior. Therefore, breaking generational patterns can sometimes look like distance from your family or increased conflict for a time while everyone adjusts. It would be a disservice to not acknowledge that this can be very painful and challenging, even if it is ultimately worth it to create new generational patterns of health.
On a personal level, confronting intergenerational trauma often looks like learning to express and regulate emotions, addressing negative core beliefs about yourself and others, and learning new ways to communicate and manage conflict. It often involves learning compassion, flexibility, and gentleness towards yourself and others, and there is usually some form of grieving for the trauma that you and your family have been through. As a clinician, helping people develop healthy patterns to pass on to their spouses, friends, and children is some of the most rewarding work out there. There is hope and freedom in saying that you want to do something different than the generations that have come before.
In conclusion, intergenerational trauma is a significant issue that can have far-reaching effects on families for years. Understanding the impact of trauma and developing strategies to heal and break the cycle of trauma is crucial for promoting healthy family relationships and building resilient communities. We at Remain Connected would love to be a part of your creating a new cycle for you and future generations.