What is Generational Trauma?

What is generational trauma?

One of the most exciting moments of a person’s life is finding out you are going to be a parent. The possibilities! The fun! Learning how to relate to a young human. Then, doubt creeps in. At HopeNation, we recognize that many traumas are inherited, and one’s behaviors and responses occur because of their past. There are a lot of passed on traumas regarding parenting.

“I don’t have a good relationship with my parents.”

“I didn’t get what I needed as a kid.”

“I act just like my mom/dad. How am I going to be a good parent?”

“What if I mess up my kid?”

Generational trauma is the culmination of traumatic and/or oppressive experiences that pass down from generation to generation. While generations in the future don’t necessarily have to experience the same things, they learn from their family patterns to continue to respond to the world in the same way.

There are two common types of generational trauma. Systemic and Familial. Systemic trauma relates to ethnicity, gender, or other minority issues that have lasted over time. An example of systemic trauma would include descendants of the Holocaust, who have had literal changes in their DNA regarding the stress response over time (Zimmerman, 2023). Other notable groups who experience systemic trauma are Native American tribes (Lopez, 2023), and African Americans. However, this is not inclusive of all minorities or their experiences. 

Familial trauma can be more individual-specific. For instance, incidents of domestic violence, sexual assault, and abuse and/or abandonment. The way individuals react to their own personal experiences affects how they respond to their own children and grandchildren. 

How Does Generational Trauma Affect People?

Our first stage of life is trust vs. mistrust. We trust that our parents are in the right, and we act accordingly and similarly until we become older and start seeing the negative consequences of those behaviors. If a family holds information very tightly and discourages sharing “family secrets”, that child is going to grow up mistrusting anyone who could be a threat to the family. If a child recognizes that their mother displays fear toward their father, that child would understand that father is not a safe person. This type of generational trauma is very family-specific and is not universal.  

In 2016, the Tennessee Department of Health took a survey of the state to find out the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences people have experienced. ACEs occur before the age of 18. ACEs include divorce, substance abuse in the home, domestic violence, abuse, etc. Results were that 61% of people have experienced at least one, with 18% percent experiencing four or more.

Symptoms that children can adopt over time:

  • General anxiety about the world
  • Social anxiety around other people
  • Depression or pessimistic attitude
  • Co-dependency with their parents
  • Aggression and anger towards their parents
  • Similar behavioral responses (yelling, isolating, “shutting down” emotionally.)

This list is not exhaustive. 

Unfortunately, these symptom responses can be encouraged by others in the family. Sometimes, it’s easier to get along with other family members if you’re “on the same page” with them. Once children have their own children, many start to recognize that their own childhoods weren’t the best and they wish that they could have been shown more patience, more comfort, or allowed more independence to develop their own views. It is common for children to have a similar attachment style with important relationships in their life, such as romantic partners and their own children. If a family fostered feelings of anxiety, grown children with their partners or friends tend to be labeled as clingy, needy, and sensitive. For those who grew up with families that avoided communication or hard issues, it is not surprising that these people also tend to isolate themselves and avoid close contact. 

Generational Trauma

How to Break the Cycle

We hear all the time, “It’s up to you to break the cycle.” That’s all well and good, but how?

It’s important, first, to recognize the pattern in your family. What are their reasonings for their actions and thoughts? How do they adapt to their own trauma? Are they behaving certain ways for good reason, no matter how flawed?

The second step, which is more difficult, is to acknowledge the patterns that have passed to you. How do your own behaviors and thoughts sync with your past? What are the specifics that you want to change?

Allow yourself to feel that hurt. It is not always fair how we are raised and to what we are exposed. This is not an easy process. Additionally, it can be uncomfortable and it’s easy to become defensive. This is normal. What is most important is to get up. Take the time you need, but don’t allow yourself to stay in that place of hurt, disappointment, and shame. 

Forgive yourself and celebrate one success at a time, whether that is catching yourself before you lose your temper or if it’s setting boundaries with a family member.

Challenge yourself to display new responses when your first instinct is to react. However, this is a slow process that requires discipline and a lot of self-reflection. Anyone who is telling you that you aren’t moving fast enough is not being supportive. 

Finally, as you continue to grow in your development, decide to yourself if reintroducing yourself is worth it to your specific family members. Additionally, it may be time to display forgiveness, and it might be wiser to keep yourself separate from it. 

Whatever you decide, you have confidence that you’re making the right decision because you have put in the work for significant self-growth.

How Does Therapy Treat Generational Trauma?

With the rise of children trying to re-parent themselves or do things differently with their own children, one can find advice anywhere, from Google to TikTok. However, a licensed clinician will be able to go in-depth and work with adult children to distinguish unhealthy patterns of behavior from their own parents. There are specific interventions other than talk therapy such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization therapy) that can ease mental and physical symptoms of trauma without rehashing the specific events that have occurred. Other interventions include somatic therapy (focusing on bodily responses and how to recognize them), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (recognizing, reframing, and changing behaviors.)

Taking the time to push past the discomfort and shame of exploring your past with an unbiased professional is one of the best things one can do for themselves. Moreover, it will not be easy, and it will take time and a lot of patience. Stopping the cycle and going another route is the bravest thing. Regardless of whether or not one decides to have children for themselves, they will undoubtably make the world around them a better place.

Click here to contact HopeNation today to schedule a consultation.

Written by: Megan (Adkins) Witt, LPC-MHSP
Clinical Licensed Therapist

Quirke, Michael (Blog, 2023). “Intergenerational Trauma: Recognize These Signs & Symptoms.” 

Lopez, Jessica. May / June 2023 Family Therapy Magazine, Volume 22, No. 3. “Suffering In Silence: The Invisible Minority and How MFTs Can Help”.

Zimmerman, Rachel (2023). The Washington Post. “How does trauma spill from one generation to the next?”

Casey Merrill

Casey Merrill


Christal Pennic

Christal Pennic