Explaining Intergenerational Trauma

By The Fix staff 10/29/21

Trauma can be passed through families due to biological and behavioral changes.

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Trauma is powerful — but not all-powerful. It is possible to break the cycle.

Consider your family tree. Can you see places where it is bent or broken? Perhaps you can see where the scars on the tree have changed the direction that the limb grew.

The tree analogy is apt when we consider the ways that trauma can be passed from generation to generation. Trauma is the result of an overwhelming undigested experience, according to Sunshine Coast Health Centre, a non 12-step rehab program in British Columbia. In much the same way that trauma can manifest for an individual, it can be passed from one generation to the next.

Both addiction and mental illness have a genetic component, but they also run through families due to intergenerational traumas, which can increase the risk for substance misuse or mental health disorders. Understanding the real role of intergenerational trauma can help you heal yourself, and break the cycle, creating healthier patterns for future generations.

What is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is inherited trauma. The theory specifically focuses on the way that trauma can be passed through genes. Some research indicates that living through a trauma can change the way that genes are expressed in future generations. Trauma can’t change your DNA, but it can change the way that the genes you have are expressed. This is known as epigenetics, or the way that the environment changes the way your genes manifest.

Some of the first research on intergenerational trauma was done on the families of Holocaust survivors. Researchers found that the children of survivors had increased risk for a variety of behaviors, including anxiety and nightmares.

Since then, researchers have studied other groups and found that the effects of trauma are present in their children and even grandchildren. Researchers have seen physical characteristics, like differences in the brain, that show that these behaviors have — at least in part — a biological cause, and aren’t just the result of being raised by a parent who has experienced trauma.

Individual events like abuse, or widespread societal events like famine, racism and war can all spur intergenerational trauma.

ACEs and trauma

Of course, biology alone can’t explain the way that addiction and substance use disorder are passed through families. In addition to any epigenetic and biological approach, researchers also consider the environment in which subsequent generations are raised. For example, people raised in poverty are more likely to raise their own children in poverty; those who have been abused are more likely to abuse children. Just like a trauma history can affect our epigenetics, it can affect our learned behavior and how we parent.

It can be helpful to think about exposure to Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic events that occur before the age of 18. ACEs include:

  • Living with someone with mental illness
  • Economic hardship
  • Being abused or witnessing abuse, of oneself or someone else
  • Having a parent with substance use disorder
  • Parents that divorce
  • Having a parent in jail

People who have four or more ACEs are more likely to have substance use disorder, drinking problems, and other physical and mental health conditions. This risk may compound existing risk that a person has due to genetics and epigenetics, making it more likely that trauma will be passed through generations.

Breaking the cycle

Trauma is powerful — but not all-powerful. It is possible to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma. One of the most critical steps is getting treatment for your own substance use or mental health conditions.

Building resilience in yourself and in the next generation can offer protection against the effects of ACEs and help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Researchers have identified seven ways to build resilience in children, by focusing on:

  • Competence: Building their skills
  • Confidence: Teaching them to believe in themselves
  • Connection: Growing strong, nurturing relationships
  • Character: Teaching them right versus wrong
  • Contribution: Helping them be of service
  • Coping: Teaching healthy skills for responding to stress
  • Control: Giving children autonomy

Many of these mirror the skill set that a quality treatment center provides. Part of overcoming substance use disorder involves building resilience in yourself. Not only will that help you, but it can help you children and even grandchildren.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

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