By Samantha Congdon, LMFT
According to the National Council, 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. Although there are many professionals who actively engage in trauma-informed care and understand how to help heal emotional trauma and trauma stress, fewer understand the concept of intergenerational trauma.
“Intergenerational trauma, or transgenerational trauma, is what happens when untreated trauma-related stress experienced by survivors is passed on to the second and subsequent generations,” states Kevin Berube Director of Mental Health and Addictions Program at the Sioux Lookout Ya Win Health Center. The transmission of trauma varies and is specific to the family at hand. For instance, a family that has suffered a tragic death may pass down generationally a fear of dying. There are also families that experience societal traumas, such as racism and discrimination. To better understand intergenerational trauma, we need to peel back layers of the past to look for the devastating event that may be affecting the current generation’s ability to cope, understand, and heal from past and present traumas.
Licensed therapist and certified trauma professional Támara Hill shares how intergenerational trauma can negatively impact families as a result of unresolved emotions and thoughts about the traumatic event, negative repeated patterns of behavior, untreated or poorly treated substance abuse, and mental health. Families who have not approached the generational trauma at hand may struggle with poor parent-child relationships, negative emotional attachments, and complicated personality traits.
So how do we help a client or family suffering from generations of traumatic experiences? Támara Hill shares it starts with awareness, education, and training as a professional. She shares a few things to keep in mind when working intergenerational trauma:
1. Understand that intergenerational trauma almost always includes a loss of safety (emotional/psychological, physical, financial, etc.).
2. Be aware of the emotions your clients are expressing to you and be open to analyzing their reactions and the ways they discuss their emotions.
3. Encourage your client to openly discuss (when ready) the loss they feel and why. You can eventually help them define and add meaning to their story.
4. Help them understand that while you want to give them time to open up. You will not “stall” for time if the intergenerational trauma is the elephant in the room.
5. Once the heavy processing involved in trauma work is over, lead your client to focus on designing a future far removed from their thoughts and feelings of the intergenerational trauma. They must understand that generational chaos can end with them.
Castelloe, M. How Trauma is carried Across Generations. May 28, 2012. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-me-in-we/201205/how-trauma-is-carried-across-generations
Berube, K. The Intergenerational Trauma of Frist Nations Still Runs Deep. February 16, 2015. The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health-advisor/the-intergenerational-trauma-of-first-nations-still-runs-deep/article23013789/
Hill, T. Should Mental Health Professionals Understand Intergenerational Trauma? December 18, 2017.The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. https://www.acamh.org/blog/intergenerational-trauma/ How To Manage Trauma. The National Council. https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Trauma-infographic.pdf?daf=375ateTbd56