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Transgenerational trauma: Trauma that is passed down through generations

Many things are passed down through the family, such as heirlooms, genetic conditions, and physical characteristics. In some cases, TRAUMA can also be inherited.

Transgenerational trauma is defined as a trauma that is not just experienced by one person, but that extends from one generation to the next.

An article from The Guardian in 2019 explores the concept very clearly in the context of the Lebanon war in 2006. A Lebanese psychiatrist who accompanies people who fought and survived the war shares how many of them live in anger and with a lot of resentment, many of them aggressively expressing these emotions, others isolating themselves, repressing, doing the least possible to exist.

But these feelings, like resentment and anger, and negative behaviors are being seen, felt and learned by their children.

Other studies have followed the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, children of American Civil War prisoners, as well as studies that try to understand the more indirect impacts of large-scale historical traumas such as the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands or the slavery in Africa. The results are not conclusive - some indicate a greater likelihood of childhood stress, others a greater resilience.

If trauma is being passed down from one generation to the next, what is the transmission mechanism?

The epigenetic idea - that trauma can cause genetic changes that are then passed on to offspring - doesn't have enough evidence to support it.

The main mechanism appears to be simply the parenting style of the traumatized parent.

As a baby, it's very important to have a caregiver around to help mirror our emotions and meet our needs. For instance, a caregiver who smiles when you smile - we internalize these responses and they become part of us. Problems can arise when the caregiver is unable to play this role, for example due to trauma:

“When you have someone who has been very neglected, where no one has held up a mirror, then you have a gap there, a blank, a nothing. And when you are maltreated, you take that experience of maltreatment as you.”

Research with mice indicates that when mothers are stressed during pregnancy or are unable to properly care for their young, they also tend to be more stressed, which can affect learning and memory.

We are all susceptible to generational trauma, but there are specific populations that are more vulnerable because of their histories. “To be systematically exploited, to suffer repeated and continuous abuse, racism and poverty are traumatic.” Domestic violence, sexual abuse, hate crimes are also included in the traumas that cause greater susceptibility.

Dr. DeSilva, a psychiatrist, says: “African Americans in the United States and around the world are particularly vulnerable. And families affected by disasters like the 2004 Asian tsunami will have traumatic reactivity for generations to come."

With the recent war in Ukraine, we can expect many generations to be affected directly and indirectly by this trauma. We need to understand that the children, grandchildren, perhaps even great-grandchildren of people now directly affected by the war will likely have to deal with consequences of this trauma.

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