Intergenerational Trauma: 6 Things I Learned from my Family’s History of Abuse

By Brook Bolen 11/13/17

When my paternal grandmother found out that I’d been abused by my brother, she responded by saying it was no big deal because it was normal behavior for brothers and sisters.

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The long-lasting effects of abuse can persist through multiple generations of a family, making the onset of addiction and other self-destructive behaviors more likely.

Shortly after I began my first consensual sexual relationship, I was devastated by memories of childhood sexual abuse that I’d repressed. In the ensuing two decades, I’ve struggled to not only make sense of what happened to me and how wholly it’s affected me, I’ve also worked to comprehend how rampant sexual abuse has been in my family. Once word of my abuse spread, I began to learn about all the other members of my family who’d been abused. And though it gutted me when many of my relatives responded unsympathetically to the news, I saw how all the abuse that preceded mine shaped their reactions. That’s when I learned about intergenerational trauma, which refers to unresolved trauma that is passed down through generations; in a sense, trauma is inherited. Using intergenerational trauma as a way to better understand my own experiences has taught me the following:


1. Abuse Is Normalized.

When my paternal grandmother found out that I’d been abused by my brother, she responded by saying it was no big deal because it was normal behavior for brothers and sisters. The emotional part of me is still stunned by this, but intellectually, it made more sense when I later found out two of her sisters had been molested by at least two of their three brothers.

While not everyone is as literal and direct as my grandmother, abuse is normalized in families where intergenerational trauma has occurred. According to Dr. Kimberly Frazier, current President of the American Counseling Association’s AMCD division, “It’s important to remember families feel like it’s normal because it’s their normal. Because abuse is their normal, it’s passed down through generations and becomes the normal until enough people go out and get help from professionals and learn new coping mechanisms--because that’s how abuse can continue.” Which brings us to our next point…

2. Dysfunctional Coping Behaviors Are Common--and They’re Often Self-Destructive.

Like many people whose families are affected by intergenerational trauma, I’ve frequently struggled with dysfunctional, often self-destructive, coping behaviors. These have included too much booze and abusive partners. In cases where partners weren’t abusive, I’ve often cheated in order to erode the trust and security that felt scary in their unfamiliarity. Of course, I didn’t understand that at the time.

Hindsight, coupled with nearly two decades of intermittent professional help, has enabled me to see how my family’s history of abuse influenced my own behavior. “It’s human nature to want to cope,” says Frazier, “but the modeling piece is how you’ll go here.” Considering the violence and alcohol abuse I saw from both sets of grandparents, it makes more sense now to see how I used to date abusive people and rely on alcohol to escape my problems.

Atlanta therapist Dr. Stephanie Swann says these sorts of self-destructive behaviors are not uncommon for people whose families have inherited trauma. “Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to protect ourselves and avoid what’s painful. One of the ways we push away our pain is acting out. The very definition of acting out is shifting our attention outward and distracting us in ways that will numb us out. We see this a lot in family systems that cannot accept truth. So there’s poor coping, which can definitely cause damage to the self and others.”

3. Intergenerational Trauma Can Function to Perpetuate Abuse.

As I began to learn more about the widespread abuse on both sides of my family, I wondered whether or not the existence of trauma in previous generations may have enabled the perpetuation of abuse in later generations, like my own. After all, I knew from my aunt that as a girl, she’d been molested in bed by a doctor while her mother (my aforementioned grandmother) lay beside her and did nothing. She was certain her mother knew it happened. This knowledge, coupled with my grandmother’s reaction to my abuse, make a relationship between intergenerational trauma and its perpetuation plausible.

Of course, not everyone who’s been abused becomes an abuser themselves. But unresolved trauma is often transmitted through generations in multiple ways. This can be through general messages about the world and safety through modeled behaviors. “Because abuse is the only thing these families know, it’s what’s modeled for them. It’s really a coping mechanism insofar as it’s all they’ve ever known,” says Dr. Frazier. “It’s not conscious collusion. It’s almost unconscious because it’s modeled, it’s a learned behavior.”

4. Where Intergenerational Trauma Exists, There Is a Stronger Likelihood that Future Generations Will Have Mental Health Problems and Addiction.

While most members of my family wouldn’t cop to mental health problems or addictive behaviors, I know how widespread they are. As someone who struggles with severe depression and anxiety, I’ve learned a lot about these conditions and I now recognize similarities and commonalities with some of my family members. My maternal grandfather, who struggled with alcoholism, also had paranoid schizophrenia. After his suicide, I discovered my paternal grandfather was rumored to have had the same condition. Likewise, I can see how depression characterized the lives of each of my grandparents, as well as other family members. My beloved aunt struggled with severe depression and anxiety, and I can see the ways my parents’ PTSD were passed along to me through hypervigilance against the constant threat of danger.

Given the trauma in previous generations, it’s easy to see how those of us in subsequent generations are susceptible to mental health problems and addiction. “Particularly with addiction,” says Dr. Frazier, “it’s a way of coping. It allows you to not think or talk about it. It helps assuage guilt and it’s a common coping mechanism.”

5. For Many People, Particularly Women, Intergenerational Abuse Increases the Odds for Future Re-Victimization.

Compared to some of my family members, the re-victimization I’ve experienced as an adult has been minor. In addition to making some disastrous decisions about partners and drinking too much, I’ve also routinely engaged in self-harming behaviors, including ripping my hair out, beating my head and legs, and self-starving. Sadly, research shows this is another type of re-victimization common in families like mine.

When I use my family’s history of abuse as a context within which to understand my own, I’m better able to understand the trauma I’ve experienced as an adult. And experts contend the risk of re-victimization occurs through both nature and nurture. “It can be hard to get boundaries in families with unresolved trauma,” Dr. Frazier says. “If they were blurred when you were little, it makes it hard to have the skill set to engage properly later on. It teaches you: it’s normal for people not to respect your boundaries, and that makes it harder to stay safe.” Dr. Swann says, “We now have genetic research that shows traumatic experiences are passed down through DNA. Trauma lives in our bodies. If our DNA is already wired for hyperarousal, we aren’t meeting life’s challenges with the same capabilities of someone who isn’t predisposed to anxiety and the like. This can affect your safety.”

6. Those Who Speak Out About Abuse Are Generally Seen as More Problematic Than the Perpetrators Themselves.

I always found it fascinating that my family demonstrated more anger with me for making the abuse I suffered from my brother public than they did with him for abusing me in the first place. Various family members told me I was reliving the past. I heard a lot of “What’s done is done” and “It’s in the past.” My personal favorite was that I had a chip on my shoulder. Yet I never once heard dismay, disbelief, or heartbreak to my news. The message I got, loud and clear, was the problem wasn’t the abuse; it was the fact that I brought it up.

While this is tragically all too often the case when abuse is verbalized, it’s especially true for families affected by intergenerational trauma. “Family systems fight to keep stasis,” says Dr. Frazier. And these systems are transmitted through the generations. Speaking out about it creates ripples through the system, disrupting the system. Speaking out makes you a mirror for the family system. When people speak out,” she continues, “it triggers what they’ve buried: PTSD, flashbacks, and the like. These are not welcome experiences. To maintain your comfort, you have to suppress and do what you’ve been doing to maintain the calm.”

Addressing and understanding intergenerational trauma is hard work that can often be made harder by family members who are not able or willing to do the same. But I am dedicated to putting an end to its perpetuation--my generation will be the last. No matter how hard or lonely that work is, it’s worth it.

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Appalachian born and bred, Brook Bolen is a freelance writer who writes about mental health, parenting, food, and feminism, among other things. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, Reader's Digest, Vice, and many more. A devotee of the oxford comma, Brook loves books, newborn baby-sized burritos, and rocking flawless DIY manicures. She lives in the beautiful mountains of Virginia with her family.