What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is broadly defined as the trauma that gets passed down from a trauma survivor and affects the well-being of subsequent generations. Intergenerational trauma is also referred to as transgenerational trauma or multigenerational trauma.

Traumatic experiences can be systemic (e.g., war, genocide, poverty, natural disasters, etc.) and can also occur on a micro-scale (e.g., discrimination, relational trauma/abuse, divorce, etc.). Trauma is experienced by each person in an individualized way and people respond to trauma in different ways. Trauma responses are ways that the brain and body learn to adapt in order to keep a person safe (e.g., physiological arousal, flattened affect). In the short-term, these initial trauma responses can be helpful for survival. However, remaining in “survival mode” for long periods of time can actually inhibit a person’s ability to thrive. Consequently, research indicates that intergenerational trauma is associated with poorer psychological outcomes and greater psychological distress. In this article, we aim to highlight what intergenerational trauma can look like, theories that explain intergenerational trauma, and ways to heal from intergenerational trauma.

What Does Intergenerational Trauma Look Like?

People who experience intergenerational trauma may experience symptoms similar to that of post-traumatic stress disorder. Intergenerational trauma can manifest in many different ways, including:

  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Hypervigilance
  • Unhealthy parent-child dynamics
  • Reliance on substances
  • Low-self esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Restriction of emotional expression

Theories behind Intergenerational Trauma

Currently, there are no precise theories to explain why intergenerational trauma occurs. However, both biological and environmental theories have been hypothesized. Research on epigenetics indicates that exposure to trauma and chronic stress can impact gene expression in subsequent generations. For example, in mice experiments, mice who were exposed to fear conditioning prior to conception demonstrated an increased fear response in later generations.

From an environmental perspective, research indicates that children learn how the world works during the developmental period. As children observe their parents, they learn how to cope and adjust to their environment. A parent/caregiver who has experienced a traumatic event may unconsciously transmit messages that the world is unsafe and/or that people are not to be trusted. Over time, the child begins to mirror the same pattern of behaviors. Overall, intergenerational trauma can occur due to environmental and biological processes.

Treatment of Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma can persist across multiple generations, even if there is no additional trauma that occurs. Trauma-informed interventions and techniques (e.g., treatment with an emphasis on collaboration and empowerment; use of grounding techniques) can help people as they start to understand the impact of intergenerational trauma in their own lives. Trauma-informed interventions can help provide people with coping strategies and tools to change unhelpful patterns of behavior or thought processes. Even if a person does not have memories of familial and ancestral traumatic events, a trauma-informed approach can help with managing physiological responses to intergenerational trauma.


Intergenerational trauma refers to how the trauma experienced by one generation impacts the well-being of later generations. Traumatic experiences can occur on a micro-level and macro-level. Trauma responses can be helpful in the short-term and keep a person safe. However, over long periods of time, these trauma responses can be maladaptive. Consequently, intergenerational trauma can manifest as a range of psychological problems and distress. Intergenerational trauma is thought to occur for both biological and environmental reasons. Healing from intergenerational trauma can involve the use of trauma-informed treatment approaches.

If you would like to process your experience with intergenerational trauma and begin healing, providers at Upside Therapy are here to help. If you are interested in services, please call 972-519-1692 or email info@upsidetherapy.com.


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