Generational trauma is unresolved trauma and shame genetically inherited from your mother or father through epigenetic inheritance. It surfaces as disempowering feelings and behaviours that make no sense in the context of the life of the person experiencing them.
Generational trauma is unresolved trauma and shame genetically inherited from your mother or father through epigenetic inheritance.
What is generational trauma?
All inherited trauma can be described as generational trauma or even ‘family trauma’ as we inherit it from our parents. Yet not all of this comes from events that directly happened to them.
Here I use the term ‘generational trauma’ to describe traumatic events that happened to the most recent 2 to 4 generations of our families. Events like divorces, sex scandals, financial failures, or war experiences that were too traumatic to handle. The shame and pain of these events are passed down as if they happened to us.
At the 2021 Intergenerational Trauma Conference, Peter McBride, Director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, noted that inherited traumas are not memories. The sufferer “holds on to the experience as a living experience”.
Generational trauma was first identified in the 1960s through Canadian studies of psychological illnesses among the children of Holocaust survivors. Speaking at ITC 2021, Peter Levine noted that such children had been known to smell burning flesh.
Generational trauma is also known as intergenerational trauma and trans-generational trauma.
Sources of generational trauma
Anything traumatic or shameful is a potential source of generational trauma, including (but not limited to):
- Abuse (physical, emotional or sexual)
- Sexual impropriety
- Financial/social scandals
- Unexpressed grief
- Wartime ‘shell shock’
Generational trauma can also surface as patterns of destructive behaviour, e.g. a family that has recurring marriage breakdowns due to infidelity over multiple generations. Because of the invisible nature of the underlying condition, and that cause and effect are spread over generations, it’s difficult to identify and resolve.
Peter McBride notes that attribution—linking current issues with past ones—is more difficult “the further away we move from the direct experience.”
Generational trauma replicates through a mechanism known as epigenetic inheritance. It’s effectively an inherited form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Epigenetic inheritance has been proven in the laboratory. Mice were given ample food and behaved normally. The food was then reduced to a minimum and the mice became aggressive and anxious.
The food supply was then reinstated. The mice’s aggressive behaviour did not change. A new generation of mice was bred from these aggressive mice. The offspring were given unlimited food from birth, yet retained their parents’ aggressive conditioning.
Professor Rachel Yehuda, speaking at ITC 2021, explained that “environmental influences cause chemical reactions that can interfere with how DNA is transcribed.”
While the understanding of the mechanics of epigenetic inheritance is fairly recent, generational trauma has long been recognised. The Christian church refers to it as ‘generational sin’ or ‘generational curses’. It is referenced on several occasions in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 20:4-6, Jeremiah 31:29 and John 9:1-3).
Deuteronomy 23:2 is an example of intergenerational shaming for sexual impropriety: “No one born outside a legal marriage, or any of their descendants for ten generations, can fully belong to the Lord’s people.”
Biblical shaming of sexual behaviour has cascaded shame from one generation to the next: “I tell you not to divorce your wife unless she has committed some terrible sexual sin.” (Matthew 5:32)
Generational trauma is created when a traumatic event occurs that the person experiencing it cannot process. I’ve written about this in more detail in The mechanics of emotional pain. The trauma is simply an accumulation or backlog of experience that was too painful to be processed—i.e. fully felt—and released when it happened.
At ITC 2021, Peter McBride noted how trauma destroys our “assumptive world” of safety. This is the assumption that we live in a safe world. When an event transcends our ability to process it, this assumptive world is shattered. If we cannot reassemble that world, it’s left for our descendants to do so—even if it takes thousands of years.
When animals are traumatised, they systematically shake their bodies to release the trauma. Humans go into shock, denial and emotional shutdown. The unresolved trauma embeds in their DNA and is then handed down in diluted form to their children.
Here it becomes part of the child’s unconscious. This is a pool of traumas from their current life as well as inherited trauma from several sources. I’ve written more about this in Trauma exists as a series of ripples.
- Current-life trauma—trauma from events in our current lifetime
- Generational trauma—trauma inherited from our immediate ancestors, typically from unresolved events that occurred to our parents and grandparents
- Community trauma—trauma that affects an entire, specific community
- Racial trauma—trauma that affects an entire, specific race
- Ancestral trauma—trauma inherited from remote ancestors, up to several thousand years old, that affects everyone living in patriarchal societies
Ultimately, all traumas are downstream from the core separation at the heart of our being, the mother wound.
Despite having no direct experience of the traumatic event, the child is affected by it in a similar way to PTSD. Because of the disconnection between the source of the trauma in one generation and its expression in a later generation, generational trauma is hard to identify.
Generational trauma may take a relatively low-grade form or it can have a very significant impact. This can result in instances of arrested development (also known as ‘developmental disorder’), where crucial developmental tasks in the child’s life don’t unfold correctly.
The Medical Dictionary defines ‘developmental tasks’ as:
Fundamental achievements that must be accomplished at each stage of life, arising at or near critical stages in the maturation of an individual; successful attainment leads to a healthy self-image and success with later tasks. Failure to achieve developmental tasks at one stage leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval of society, and difficulty in accomplishing later developmental tasks.
This happened in my own case when my grandmother had an affair in 1932. She was evicted from the family. My mother was deeply traumatised that her mother preferred an affair to raising her daughter. My mother was unable to process the double-whammy of abandonment and sexual shame. She was emotionally crippled for life. I inherited her unprocessed feelings and had to process them as part of my own healing journey.
Not only did I have to deal with my mother’s unprocessed shame and feelings of abandonment, my mother-child development process was significantly affected right from birth. This affected my ability to communicate, connect with others, and to nurture both myself and other aspects of my life (e.g. family, career, creations).
In The emotional cost of generational trauma I go into greater depth about its impact.
Suzannah Lessard’s The Architect of Desire is a classic study of generational trauma. Lessard’s great-grandfather Stanford White was a leading architect during the American ‘gilded age’ of the late 19th century. He was also a serial sexual abuser whose murder caused a national scandal.
Stanford White’s sexually motivated murder cascaded shame and sexual abuse across several generations of Lessard’s family, a trauma that she unpicks in her harrowing and courageous account.
Paula Uruburu’s American Eve – Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White and the birth of the ‘it’ girl tells the story from the perspective of Evelyn Nesbit, the beautiful young ingénue at the heart of the Stanford White scandal.
Healing generational trauma
How do you identify family skeletons, i.e. generational trauma, in your family?
Your family tree is the obvious place to start—as are the emotional symptoms you’re observing, in your life or those of family members, which make you question if you’re dealing with generational trauma.
A lot of this is basic genealogical research advice—with one significant exception. The information you seek is often noticeable only by its absence.
Speaking about racial trauma at ITC 2021, Professor Kenneth V. Hardy observed that “we have to change what we look for in order to change what we see”. This applies to all forms of inherited trauma.
You’re looking for ‘skeletons in closets’: sex scandals, financial ruin, sudden deaths, illegitimate children—all the things the chroniclers of your family didn’t want to record for posterity. In her family memoir The Scarlet Sisters, Helen Batten notes that “the number of wedding photos that survive are in direct proportion to how popular the marriages were with the family.”
Like a detective at a murder scene, you’re looking for disturbances in the ‘loam’ of your family history. And, as they say, the dead don’t talk.