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Understanding and Treating Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

By Dr. Ofer Zur


Intergenerational Trauma

Researchers and clinicians have become increasingly aware that the effects of trauma suffered by one generation--whether individual or collective trauma--are passed on to subsequent generations. Many therapists treat clients' presenting symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or marital issues without investigating or appreciating that these symptoms may have a background of secondary trauma that needs to be more directly addressed. In light of recent and accumulating research, today's clinicians need to understand how to recognize intergenerational transmission of trauma, the mechanisms of transmission, and how to treat it.

Examples of clients suffering from intergenerational transmission of trauma include families of Holocaust survivors, African-Americans, Native Americans, Estonians, Balkan and African populations. Genocides, civil wars, and natural disasters can produce traumatic effects that reverberate for several generations, affecting clients' perspectives, hopes, cognitive styles and personalities. It is essential to understand both the facts of the traumatic event(s), how family members coped or didn't cope with the effects, and what lessons about life and survival were passed on, consciously and unconsciously.

The type of trauma as well as each family's specific circumstances have a significant effect on the client who seems (and may believe) that s/he is safely removed from the trauma by distance or time. Effective treatment may encompass CBT, Somatic Experiencing, psychodynamic, humanistic, existential and narrative therapies as well as work with the community.

 
More on Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma:

  • Trauma can be transmitted though physiological, environmental and social pathways.
  • Symptoms of historical trauma may be mistaken for other disorders and can include denial, depersonalization, isolation, memory loss, nightmares, psychic numbing, hyper vigilance, substance abuse, identification with death, and unresolved grief.
  • Trauma can be passed on through genetic damage and prenatal malnutrition.
  • Treating trauma requires culturally specific, not generic, treatment.
  • Children experiencing secondary trauma are vulnerable to feelings of depression, guilt and rage.
  • Adolescents with substance abuse issues should always be assessed for intergenerational trauma.
  • People who served as "memorial candles" for traumatized families are more likely to have separation anxieties.
  • Four means of generational transmission of trauma are:
    • the vicarious identification of children with their parents' suffering
    • the intuitive responsibility assumed by children to compensate in various ways for their parents' suffering
    • the particular patterns of parenting demonstrated by survivors toward their offspring
    • the styles of communication between parents and their children concerning the parents' traumatic experiences