Generational Trauma Definition, Symptoms, & Treatment

Generational trauma occurs when the effects of past traumatic events are passed down from one generation to the next. This can happen if the initial trauma isn’t properly addressed or resolved, causing emotional and psychological distress in the offspring of the original victims.


Generational trauma, also known as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, is a topic that has gained increasing attention in recent years. This form of trauma refers to transferring emotional pain and suffering from one generation to another, often resulting from significant historical events or deeply rooted cultural issues. In this article, we will explore the definition of generational trauma, its symptoms, and the various treatment options available for those affected.

What is Generational Trauma (GT)?

Simply put, GT occurs when the effects of past traumatic events are passed down from one generation to the next. This can happen if the initial trauma isn’t properly addressed or resolved, causing emotional and psychological distress in the offspring of the original victims. Many groups have experienced generational trauma, including Indigenous communities, Holocaust survivors, and descendants of African slaves.

Generational Trauma Definition

The term ‘generational trauma’ encompasses the psychological, emotional, and social effects of unresolved trauma passed down through generations. It is a complex phenomenon that can manifest in various ways, including mental health disorders, substance abuse, and social issues.

Understanding Intergenerational Trauma

When trauma is passed down from one generation to the next, it is said to have occurred at the generational level. It happens when a group suffers a traumatic event that affects their health and relationships. Mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been linked to GT. One generation may feel the effects of trauma.

Still, subsequent generations may carry on the legacy through prejudice and discrimination. How trauma gets passed down through generations has the potential to affect subsequent generations in subtle but significant ways. Generational trauma must be acknowledged and addressed if affected communities are to experience healing and resilience.

Examples of Intergenerational Trauma

Different historical events and cultural settings can serve as examples of trauma that can be passed down from one generation to the next. Some instances are as follows:

  • The trauma of long-term colonization, slavery, or systematic discrimination can be passed down through the generations in communities. Indigenous peoples, people with a history of slavery in their family tree, and other underrepresented groups are all examples.
  • Generational trauma is common in communities and families hit by war, genocide, or political unrest. Generations that do not directly experience violence, displacement, or loss can still be profoundly impacted by those that did.
  • Forced assimilation, cultural erasure, and the suppression of religious practices are all examples of cultural traumas that can have long-lasting effects on a community’s identity and well-being. The effects of trauma can be transmitted through generations via oral history, ritual, and memory.
  • Trauma can be passed down through the generations when there is a history of dysfunction or abuse in the family. Parenting methods, attachment styles, and children’s mental health can all be affected by generational trauma that isn’t addressed.

Generational Trauma Fact Sheet


Generational trauma refers to transmitting trauma across generations, affecting individuals’ and communities’ physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. It arises from various sources such as historical oppression, war and conflict, cultural trauma, and family dysfunction or abuse.


It can stem from traumatic experiences that occurred in the past and continue to impact subsequent generations. These experiences include slavery, genocide, forced migration, discrimination, and other systemic oppression. Family dynamics and unresolved trauma within the family unit can also contribute to generational trauma.

Impact on Health

GT can have a profound impact on individuals’ health. It is associated with increased risks of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. Additionally, physical health conditions such as heart disease and other stress-related ailments may be more prevalent among individuals affected by generational trauma.

Transmission Mechanisms

Trauma can be transmitted across generations through various mechanisms. Genetic factors can contribute to the vulnerability of individuals to certain mental health conditions. Family dynamics learned behaviors, and coping mechanisms influenced by the trauma experienced by previous generations can also play a role. Societal factors, including ongoing discrimination and prejudice, can perpetuate the cycle of generational trauma.

Cultural Resilience

Communities affected by generational trauma often demonstrate resilience and strength through cultural practices, community support, and collective healing strategies. Cultural traditions, rituals, and ceremonies can serve as important tools for processing trauma, fostering a sense of identity, and promoting healing within the community.

Breaking Generational Trauma

Recognizing and addressing GT is crucial for breaking the cycle of generational trauma and promoting healing. Raising awareness about the impact of generational trauma, seeking therapy or counseling, and implementing supportive interventions can help individuals and communities heal from their traumatic experiences. Education, advocacy, and creating safe spaces for open dialogue are important steps toward breaking the cycle of generational trauma and fostering healthier legacies.

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Trauma that affects multiple generations has a significant and long-lasting effect. When a group of people suffers through a traumatic event together, it can have serious psychological and physiological effects on everyone involved. Researchers have found that intimate partner violence victims and the children of Holocaust survivors both have a higher risk of developing PTSD symptoms. Adverse mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety, are more common in people who were abused as children.

Health problems like heart disease and substance abuse have been linked to traumatic experiences in childhood. These numbers highlight the serious impact that trauma experienced by one generation can have on the well-being of the next, highlighting the need to recognize and address this problem to promote healing and break the cycle of trauma.


American Indian and Alaska Native adults reported exposure to at least one traumatic event during their lifetime.

Source: SAMHSA


of children who have been exposed to intimate partner violence develop symptoms of PTSD.

Source: SAMHSA

2-3 times higher

individuals who experienced childhood abuse risk developing depression and anxiety disorders later in life.

Source: SAMHSA

Intergenerational Trauma Symptoms

Specific signs of intergenerational trauma can be different; some of the most common ones are:

  • Emotional and mental distress: People can show signs of anxiety, depression, fear, and emotional instability.
  • Behavior patterns: To deal with unresolved trauma, people may use self-destructive behaviors like drug abuse, self-harm, or risky behaviors.
  • Relationship problems: Intergenerational trauma can make it hard for people to form and keep healthy relationships. This can cause problems with trust, intimacy, and communication.
  • Challenges with culture and identity: Trauma can change a person’s sense of self, cultural identity, and worldview, making them feel disconnected, lose their cultural heritage, and have trouble following cultural norms.
  • Physical health problems: The intergenerational trauma that can cause chronic stress can lead to physical health problems like chronic pain, trouble sleeping, and autoimmune diseases.

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What Causes Generational Trauma?

It can happen when traumatic events and their effects are passed down from generation to generation. Generational trauma is caused by and keeps happening because of the following:

  • Historical events like war, genocide, colonization, slavery, forced relocation, or cultural oppression can be the first thing that causes trauma.
  • Discrimination, racism, poverty, social inequality, and marginalization are all social and systemic factors that keep trauma going in communities and families.
  • Family dynamics: When trauma isn’t dealt with, it can be passed down from one generation to the next through dysfunctional coping methods, unhealthy communication, and broken attachment relationships.
  • Cultural and societal norms: Cultural norms and beliefs can reinforce trauma patterns, like being shamed, keeping quiet, or not talking about traumatic experiences. This can make it harder to heal and keep the effects of trauma going from one generation to the next.
  • Attachment and parenting styles can be affected by trauma, making it hard to give children emotional support, care for them, and make a safe environment for them. This keeps the cycle of trauma going.

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Healing Generational Trauma

Healing trauma passed down from generation to generation requires a multifaceted approach considering trauma’s historical, cultural, and personal aspects. Here are some of the most important ways to heal generational trauma:

  • Awareness and education: Knowing and understanding how generational trauma affects people is essential. People and communities can learn more about historical events, cultural contexts, and the effects of trauma on multiple generations by learning about them.
  • Trauma-informed therapy: Getting help from therapists with trauma therapy experience is important. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and somatic experiencing can help people deal with trauma, heal, and learn how to cope.
  • Networks of support: Building strong support networks within families, communities, and cultural groups is essential. Creating safe places for open conversation, sharing experiences, and emotional support helps people heal and get back on their feet.
  • Reconnecting with cultural traditions, practices, and values can empower and heal. This is what cultural revitalization is all about. Celebrating cultural identity, participating in cultural activities, and reclaiming cultural heritage help people and communities regain their strength and resilience.
  • Advocacy and social change: For generational trauma to heal, it is important to address systemic inequalities, discrimination, and social injustices. Promoting policies that promote fairness, social justice, and inclusion can help create environments that help people heal and stop more trauma from happening.

Healing trauma passed down from generation to generation is a complicated and ongoing process that takes work from everyone. It means being honest about the past, working on your own healing, building up supportive communities, and fighting for societal changes that help to heal resilience and social justice.

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  1. is generational trauma real?

    Yes, generational trauma is a recognized and documented phenomenon. Research has shown that traumatic experiences can have lasting effects on individuals and can be transmitted across generations. Historical events, such as wars, genocide, colonization, slavery, and other forms of systemic oppression, can impact not only the directly affected individuals but also their descendants. These experiences can shape cultural, social, and psychological dynamics, contributing to the perpetuation of trauma through generations. Understanding and addressing generational trauma is essential for promoting healing, resilience, and social justice.

  2. How trauma gets passed down through generations?

    Trauma can be transmitted across generations through biological mechanisms, epigenetic changes, parenting behaviors, social and cultural factors, and learned behaviors and beliefs. The impact of trauma can affect the functioning of the nervous system, gene expression patterns, parenting styles, family dynamics, cultural norms, and individual coping mechanisms.

  3. What’s the difference between intergenerational and transgenerational trauma?

    People often interchange the terms intergenerational trauma and transgenerational trauma, but they can mean different things. Trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next in a family or community through direct experiences, learned behaviors, and how people interact. Transgenerational trauma, on the other hand, is when trauma is passed down from one generation to the next and affects more than just the immediate family or community. It includes the historical and shared trauma that a certain group or culture has gone through and how that trauma continues to affect future generations. There are some similarities between the two ideas, but transgenerational trauma is a broader concept that includes intergenerational trauma and societal and cultural factors.

Tips to Cope and Combat Depressive Episodes

Coping with depression can be challenging, but there are several strategies you can use to help manage your symptoms. Exercising, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep can help improve your mood. Talking to a therapist can also be beneficial as they can provide additional resources and help you process your thoughts and feelings. Lastly, knowing what triggers your depressive episodes can help you better prepare for them.

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