Transgenerational trauma

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Transgenerational trauma is trauma that is transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.


Soon after descriptions of concentration camp syndrome (also known as survivor syndrome) appeared, clinicians observed in 1966 that large numbers of children of Holocaust survivors were seeking treatment in clinics in Canada. The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by 300% among the referrals to a child psychiatry clinic in comparison with their representation in the general population.[1]

The phenomenon of children of traumatized parents being affected directly or indirectly by their parents’ post-traumatic symptoms has been described by some authors as secondary traumatisation (in reference to the second generation). To include the third generation, as well, the term intergenerational transmission of trauma was introduced. Building upon the clinical observations by Selma Fraiberg, child trauma researchers such as Byron Egeland, Inge Bretherton, and Daniel Schechter have empirically identified psychological mechanisms that favor intergenerational transmission, including dissociation in the context of attachment, and "communication"[clarification needed] of prior traumatic experience as an effect of parental efforts to maintain self-regulation in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder and related alterations in social cognitive processes.[2][3][4][5][6]

Both survivors and immediate witnesses of traumatic events in family history have traditionally been treated by family therapists. The first-generation experiences of combat veterans, hostages, prisoners of war, and the civil population who was victimized at the hands of war criminals from genocidal organizations such as the German Nazi Party, Italian Fascist party, and similar organizations and their (para-)military arms, have been dealt with within the confines of political arena and international law, however the descendants of both immediate witnesses and victims of genocide, colonial suppression, slavery, political totalitarian control, clerical abuse in religious organizations, and many survivors of terrorism had to deal with the victimization symptoms themselves, without the transfer of original trauma being recognized and help offered.

Enslavement and slavery, civil and domestic violence, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty are also sources of trauma that can be transferred to subsequent generations.

This phenomenon has been reported in the descendants of students at American Indian boarding schools, who were removed from their parents and extended family and lacked models for parenting as a result. Being punished for speaking their native language and forbidden from practicing traditional rituals had a traumatic effect on many students, and child abuse was rampant in the schools as well.[7][8][9][10]


Previous research assumed that the trauma transmission was mainly caused by the parents’ child-rearing behavior, however, it may have been also epigenetically transferred.[11] An epigenetics study published in 2015 suggested that a parent’s experience of trauma may change a child’s stress hormone profiles.[12] However, many experts have since pointed out flaws in the study's methodology, which had a very small sample size, studied only a tiny number of genes, and didn't control for social factors.[13] One blog, published by the Center for Epigenomics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, called this research the “over-interpreted epigenetics study of the week.”[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fossion, P., Rejas, M., Servais, L., Pelc, I. & Hirsch, S. (2003). "Family approach with grandchildren of Holocaust survivors," American Journal of Psychotherapy, 57(4), 519-527.
  2. ^ Fraiberg S, Adelson E, Shapiro V (1975).Ghosts in the nursery. A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry,14(3), 387-421.
  3. ^ Egeland B, Susman-Stillman A (1996). Dissociation as a mediator of child abuse across generations. Child Abuse Negl.20(11):1123-32.
  4. ^ Bretherton I (1990). Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 11(3), 237-251.
  5. ^ Schechter DS (2003). Intergenerational communication of maternal violent trauma: Understanding the interplay of reflective functioning and posttraumatic psychopathology. In S.W. Coates, J.L. Rosenthal and D.S. Schechter (eds.) September 11: Trauma and Human Bonds. Hillside, NJ: Analytic Press, Inc. pp. 115-142.
  6. ^ Schechter DS, Zygmunt A, Coates SW, Davies M, Trabka KA, McCaw J, Kolodji A., Robinson JL (2007). Caregiver traumatization adversely impacts young children’s mental representations of self and others. Attachment & Human Development, 9(3), 187-205.
  7. ^ Ann M. Haag, The Indian Boarding School Era and Its Continuing Impact on Tribal Families and the Provision of Government Services, 43 Tulsa L. Rev. 149 (2007).
  8. ^ Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph.D. and Lemyra M. DeBruyn, Ph.D. "THE AMERICAN INDIAN HOLOCAUST: HEALING HISTORICAL UNRESOLVED GRIEF" (PDF). American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research. Retrieved 6 April 2017. 
  9. ^ Kathleen Brown-Rice. "The Professional Counselor  » Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma Among Native Americans". Retrieved 6 April 2017. 
  10. ^ Vinnie Rotondaro (1 September 2015). "Boarding schools: A black hole of Native American history". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 6 April 2017. 
  11. ^ Kellermann, N. (2013).Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma, Isr. J. Psychiatry, Vol 50, No.1, pp 33-39.
  12. ^ Rodriguez, Tori (March 1, 2015). "Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones". Scientific American. Retrieved January 30, 2018. 
  13. ^ Yasmin, Seema. "Experts debunk study that found Holocaust trauma is inherited". Retrieved 2018-04-25. 
  14. ^ "Over-interpreted epigenetics study of the week". EpgntxEinstein. Retrieved 2018-04-25. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Coffey, R. (1998). Unspeakable truths and happy endings. Sidran Press. ISBN 1-886968-05-5
  • Danieli, Y. (Ed.) (1998). International handbook of multigenerational legacies of trauma. New York: Plenum.
  • Daud, A., Skoglund, E. & Rydelius, P. (2005). Children in families of torture victims: transgenerational transmission of parents’ traumatic experiences to their children. International Journal of Social Welfare, 14, 23-32.
  • Degruy, J. (2005). Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, . Uptone Press ISBN 978-0963401120
  • Fossion, P., Rejas, M., Servais, L., Pelc, I. & Hirsch, S. (2003). Family approach with grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 57(4), 519-527.
  • Herman, JL (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schwab, G. (2010). Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma. Columbia University Press.
  • van der Kolk, B.A., Roth, S., Pelcovitz, D., Sunday, S., & Spinazzola, J. (2005). "Disorders of extreme stress: the empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma". Journal of Traumatic Stress 18, 389-399.
  • Plaskon, Kyril D. (2015). Silent Heroes of the Cold War. ISBN 1507884664 [1]

External links[edit]

  • Video by Leila Levinson, child of an American witness of concentration camp and author of Gated Grief.
  • An article by a supervisor of Master's and Doctoral students specialising in trauma counselling, Wentzel Coetzer.
  • Healing Collective Trauma, a website with resources on collective, historical, and transgenerational trauma.
  • Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart on intergenerational trauma in Native Americans
  • Master's thesis – Tim Haslett's NYU Master's Thesis on Transgenerational Haunting in African Diasporic Lifeworlds