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.

Symptoms of transgenerational trauma have in recent years been identified among Black Americans, in relation to the effects of slavery and racial discrimination. This passing of trauma can be rooted from the family unit itself, or found in society via current discrimination and oppression.[2] The traumatic event does not need to be individually experienced by all members of a family; the lasting effects can still remain and impact descendants from external factors. For example, Black children’s internalization of others’ reactions to their skin color manifests as a form of lasting trauma originally experienced by their ancestors.[3][4] This reaction to Black skin stems from similar attitudes that led to the traumatizing conditions and enslavement of slaves. Black children and youth are more susceptible to racial trauma because they have not yet acquired the knowledge to have a full understanding of racism and its effects. However, these traumatizing behaviors experienced at such a young age are a reflection of a child’s parenting. A White child may learn racist behaviors from their environment, but on the same token a Black child can learn to assert their blackness and how to respond to racist remarks and actions from their parents.[5] Traces of trauma have an impact on Black and other minority children’s success in an educational context.

Instances of transgenerational trauma where the trauma affects a large population of people and their role in society can be identified as cultural trauma. This form of trauma results in a greater loss of identity and meaning, which in turn affects generations upon generations as the trauma is ingrained into society.[6] This passing of psychological and emotional trauma from slavery has also been identified as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). According to Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, PTSS is when a population experiences intergenerational trauma from centuries of psychological and emotional enslavement and continues to face institutionalized oppression and racism. Black Americans who are descendants of former slaves when faced with racism and oppression have reactions that mirror that of PTSD.[7]DeGruy theorizes that PTSS is directly responsible for other dangers and origins of harm in the Black community. The internalized harm caused by PTSS becomes external, allowing the rest of society to use the effects and symptoms of PTSS as stereotypes against Black people, thus exacerbating the racial-trauma and moving forward the cycle.[8]

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.[9][10][11][12][13]

Symptoms and Treatment[edit]

Unresolved grief and/or trauma often times accompanies Human Trauma Response (HTR), which can be passed from one generation to the next along with its symptoms. HTR’s symptoms include depression, self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts and actions, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, or substance abuse. However, the treatment and identification of these symptoms differ based on the affected group.[14]A feeling of hopelessness or worthlessness is also an effect of race-based trauma. These symptoms come from the reminder that many of the traumatic events were at one point or still are protected by law. Slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of violence and oppression against Black Americans were a part of the law. Even today, there remain opportunities for the disenfranchisement of Black Americans that remain protected by law. This systemic disadvantage adds as a level of distress and exacerbates the traumatic effect.

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.

In general, Black Americans who suffer from any mental illness are resistant to receiving treatment due to stigma, negative conceptions, and fear of discrimination. This reduces the number of those affected to seek help.[15] Not seeking treatment allows the symptoms to compound and further internalization of distress continues, worsening the mental health of the individual.[16] Those affected by race-based trauma oftentimes do not seek treatment not only because of stigma but because of fear the medical professional will not understand their perspective as a disenfranchised minority. Due to the recent identification and research of transgenerational trauma affecting Black Americans and other racial minorities combined with the existing stigma of mental health, there is a lack of research and consequently treatment. However, lack of treatment can also be attributed to the misdiagnosis of the aforementioned symptoms. Signs of trauma exhibited in Black children are labeled as behavioral or educational disabilities, allowing the trauma to go untreated. While trauma symptoms often manifest as other mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, the larger diagnosis often goes untreated.[17] Additionally, there is disproportionate access to treatment for Black Americans, whether it be financially, geographically, or because of a lack of transportation. However, academics such as Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary provide treatment and services to Black Americans experiencing symptoms of race-based trauma and have made the connection between current problems facing Black American families and the centuries of enslavement.

Enslavement and slavery, civil and domestic violence, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty are also sources of trauma that can be transferred to subsequent generations. For instance, survivors of child sexual abuse may negatively influence future generations due to past untreated or unresolved trauma which can increase feelings of mistrust, isolation, and loneliness.[18] Descendents of slaves when faced with racism-motivated violence, microaggressions, or outward racism, react as if they were faced with the original trauma that was generationally transmitted to them. There are a variety of stressors in one’s life that lead to this PTSD-like reaction such as varying racist experiences, daily microstressors, major race-related life events, or collective racism or traumas.[19] This also presents itself in parenting styles.[20] Parents who not only receive the trauma genetically but also experience triggers frequently in their environment can create a home environment that deflects the stress they experience, adding on to the inherent stress of the child. Goodman and West-Olatunji proposed potential transgenerational trauma in the aftermath of natural disasters.[21] In a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, residents have seen a dramatic increase in interpersonal violence with higher mortality rates.[22]

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.[23][24][25][26]


Previous research assumed that the trauma transmission was mainly caused by the parents’ child-rearing behavior, however, it may have been also epigenetically transferred.[27] An epigenetics study published in 2015 suggested that a parent’s experience of trauma may change a child’s stress hormone profiles.[28] 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.[29] 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.”[30]

However, the theory of trauma transmission via epigenetics has been researched by other parties. Trauma can be transferred via a repeated environment, triggering the reformation of a gene in each generation; this is the most indirect form of epigenetic imprinting.[31] One’s environment and external experiences impact cellular activity and epigenetic processes, making it possible for victims of trauma to pass their symptoms and effects to their children and so on, especially if the environment does not change.

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. ^ Gump, Janice P. “Reality Matters: The Shadow of Trauma on African American Subjectivity.” Psychoanalytic Psychology, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2010, p. 48.
  3. ^ Akhtar, Salman. The African American Experience Psychoanalytic Perspectives . Jason Aronson, 2012, p. 291
  4. ^ Bonnovitz, Jennifer. White Analysts Seeing Black Patients, The African American Experience Psychoanalytic Perspectives.Jason Aronson, 2012, p. 285
  5. ^ Jernigan, Maryam & Henderson Daniel, Jessica. (2011). Racial Trauma in the Lives of Black Children and Adolescents: Challenges and Clinical Implications. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma. 4. 126-128.
  6. ^ Eyerrnan, Ron. “The Past in the Present Culture and the Transmission of Memory.” Acta Sociologica (Sage Publications, Ltd.), vol. 47, no. 2, June 2004, p. 160.
  7. ^ George, Cindy. “Do You Have Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome?” Ebony, vol. 70, no. 11, Sept. 2015, pp. 67–70.
  8. ^ Leigh, Katheryne T. .., and Matthew D. .. Davis. “U.S. Public Education: The Ivy Tower of Historical Trauma.” Journal of Philosophy & History of Education, vol. 67, Jan. 2017, p. 21.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Egeland B, Susman-Stillman A (1996). Dissociation as a mediator of child abuse across generations. Child Abuse Negl.20(11):1123-32.
  11. ^ Bretherton I (1990). Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 11(3), 237-251.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Mullan-Gonzalez, Jennifer. Slavery and the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Inner City African American Male Youth: A Model Program--From the Cotton Fields to the Concrete Jungle. 2012. California Institute of Integral Studies, PhD Dissertation.
  15. ^ Williams, Monnica T., et al. “Cultural Adaptations of Prolonged Exposure Therapy for Treatment and Prevention of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in African Americans.” Behavioral Sciences (2076-328X), vol. 4, no. 2, June 2014, pp. 105–106.
  16. ^ Coleman, Jennifer A. 1.colemanj3@vcu.ed. “Racial Differences in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Military Personnel: Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma as a Theoretical Lens.” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, vol. 25, no. 6, July 2016, pp. 564–565.
  17. ^ Goodman, Rachael D., and Cirecie West-Olatunji. 2010. Educational hegemony, traumatic stress, and african american and latino american students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 38, (3) (07): 176-178
  18. ^ Frazier, Kimberly; West-Olatunji, Cirecie; St. Juste, Shirley; Goodman, Rachael (2009). "Transgenerational Trauma and Child Sexual Abuse: Reconceptualizing Cases Involving Young Survivors of CSA". Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 31 (1): 22–33. doi:10.17744/mehc.31.1.u72580m253524811. ISSN 1040-2861.
  19. ^ Harrell, Shelly. (2000). A Multidimensional Conceptualization of Racism-Related Stress: Implications for the Well-Being of People of Color. The American journal of orthopsychiatry. 70. 42-50.
  20. ^ Sullivan, Shannon. “Inheriting Racist Disparities in Health: Epigenetics and the Transgenerational Effects of White Racism.” Critical Philosophy of Race, vol. 1, no. 2, 2013, pp. 190–218.
  21. ^ Goodman, Rachael; West-Olatunji, Cirecie (2008). "Transgenerational Trauma and Resilience: Improving Mental Health Counseling for Survivors of Hurricane Katrina". Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 30 (2): 121–136. doi:10.17744/mehc.30.2.q52260n242204r84. ISSN 1040-2861.
  22. ^ Franks, J. "Slow recovery goes on in crime-wear New Orleans". Retrieved 22 September 2018.
  23. ^ 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).
  24. ^ 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.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ Kathleen Brown-Rice. "The Professional Counselor » Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma Among Native Americans". Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  26. ^ Vinnie Rotondaro (1 September 2015). "Boarding schools: A black hole of Native American history". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  27. ^ Kellermann, N. (2013).Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma, Isr. J. Psychiatry, Vol 50, No.1, pp 33-39.
  28. ^ Rodriguez, Tori (March 1, 2015). "Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones". Scientific American. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  29. ^ Yasmin, Seema. "Experts debunk study that found Holocaust trauma is inherited". Retrieved 2018-04-25.
  30. ^ "Over-interpreted epigenetics study of the week". EpgntxEinstein. Retrieved 2018-04-25.
  31. ^ Sullivan, Shannon. “Inheriting Racist Disparities in Health: Epigenetics and the Transgenerational Effects of White Racism.” Critical Philosophy of Race, vol. 1, no. 2, 2013, pp. 190–218.

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
  • Graff, Gilda. “The Intergenerational Trauma of Slavery and Its Aftereffects: The Question of Reparations.” Journal of Psychohistory, vol. 44, no. 4, Spring 2017, pp. 256–268.
  • 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.
  • Sibrava, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in African American and Latinx Adults: Clinical Course and the Role of Racial and Ethnic Discrimination.” American Psychologist, vol. 74, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 101–116.
  • 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
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