• Generational trauma occurs when parents unintentionally pass their trauma down to their kids. 
  • Generational trauma can affect multiple generations over the course of hundreds of years. 
  • Learning to address your trauma through therapy can help stop the harmful cycle.

A traumatic event is terrible in the moment, but as anyone who has experienced trauma knows, it doesn't stop there: The emotional and physical ramifications last for weeks, months, and even years.

But it's not just you. Your trauma can take a toll on others, too — in particular, your children, grandchildren, and other generations that follow. This is called generational, or intergenerational, trauma. 

Also dubbed transgenerational trauma or multigenerational trauma, the concept of intergenerational trauma was pioneered by Vivian Rakoff in the 1960s. Her studies on Holocaust survivors revealed that their children were more likely to struggle emotionally than kids whose parents hadn't experienced genocide.

"A lot of people don't tend to understand that intergenerational trauma, unless those patterns are changed, the patterns tend to continue. They don't just go away on their own," says Susan Beaulieu, an assistant extension professor in family development at the University of Minnesota. "If we don't deal with them, they actually end up compounding over time."

Here's how intergenerational trauma may be affecting you and your family and how to break the cycle.

Examples of intergenerational trauma

One of the longest-running cases of intergenerational trauma still in effect today dates back hundreds of years to the mass enslavement of African people in the United States.

Over the decades and centuries, those traumas were passed down to younger generations, in part, due to outside factors of historical oppression like socioeconomic impacts and a legacy of poverty.

But there's also genetic elements of stress transmission, and psychological factors like parent-child relationships that play a role.

Almost any significant trauma can spread to your children and subsequent generations.

Other examples of intergenerational trauma include:

  • Sexual and physical abuse: Research has found that at least 75% of people who sexually or physically abuse others were abused themselves as children. In the case of incest, this perpetuates the trauma of sexual and physical abuse across generations.  
  • Genocide: Studies have shown that the children of Holocaust survivors experience higher rates of mental health problems than children of non-survivors. They can also experience physical changes, like increased or decreased cortisol levels. These modifications can make children of survivors either more or less prone to stress.
  • Debilitating accident: Events like car accidents can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies have shown that parents dealing with trauma may have a harder time connecting to their children, and children develop potentially unhealthy coping strategies, like self-soothing, as a result.

How is trauma passed down through generations?

Intergenerational trauma is perpetuated through a mix of behavior and genetics.

Most obviously, negative cycles of abuse can lead to repeated traumas from generation to generation. For instance, parents may think physical abuse is the best way to parent their children, King says, but ultimately, it contributes to intergenerational trauma.

Moreover, if parents have unresolved traumas, they may develop negative coping mechanisms they pass on to their children. For example, one 2015 study suggests that survivors of the Ukrainian Holodomor genocide were likely to experience feelings of anxiety and fear, and to adopt behaviors like hoarding food. Their children and grandchildren later adopted some of these negative coping strategies and fears.

The way trauma spreads can be more subtle, too. Parents who have experienced traumas can struggle to develop positive attachments with their children and may have issues anticipating their kids' wants and needs. Though this lack of bonding isn't necessarily as obvious as physical abuse, it can cause mental health and interpersonal issues for children in the future, like an inability to be vulnerable and trust future partners

For instance, Beaulieu says that many children who were forcibly sent to Native American boarding schools were abused and weren't taught how to regulate their own emotions. Instead, they learned to shut down when they were stressed. Later, when their own kids were in high-emotion situations, they struggled to teach and connect to them, creating a distance between parents and kids and perpetuating the cycle of trauma.

Trauma can also be passed down through your genes, specifically through epigenetics. Epigenetics is the way that your genetic code is expressed. According to Beaulieu, different life experiences can "turn on or turn off" certain genes. A mother's diet during pregnancy, for instance, can determine which genes are triggered in her baby, affecting the child's disease risk as an adult.

This means that even if you had a perfectly happy and healthy childhood, you can still experience the effects of intergenerational trauma. 

One 2018 study showed that sons of American Civil War prisoners of war had higher premature death rates than sons of non-prisoners of war, being more likely to die from illnesses like cerebral hemorrhages and cancer. After controlling for socioeconomic and cultural factors, researchers attributed this difference in mortality to epigenetic changes resulting from the stress of POW camps, which were passed down to prisoners' sons.

It's not totally clear yet how long the genetic impacts of intergenerational trauma can last in humans, Beaulieu says. Some studies on animals suggest epigenetic changes related to environmental changes can stick for as many as 10 generations.

But broadly speaking, evidence indicates intergenerational trauma can be passed down for hundreds of years, spanning dozens of generations, such as in the case of intergenerational trauma due to slavery

In the end, how long a particular intergenerational trauma lasts depends on a variety of outside factors, including your desire to address your own traumas and break the cycle.

Who is affected by intergenerational trauma?

While intergenerational trauma can affect anyone, certain demographics are at a higher risk. 

Groups which have experienced historical traumas — including Indigenous and Black people in the US — are particularly vulnerable, King says.

For example, the first generation of Indigenous people who experienced colonization underwent undeniable horrors – but their children experienced those traumas as well as the traumas of their parents. "That's twice as much trauma," Beaulieu says.

It's important to note that just because your ancestors experienced trauma isn't always a guarantee that you, or your children, will be affected. 

"There's lots of factors that play in. If there are people and experiences that can help buffer that trauma, even in that generation or the second generation, then the trauma doesn't end up perpetuating," Beaulieu says. 

What to do about it

Intergenerational trauma can be treated. In fact, one of the most important ways to address intergenerational trauma is preemptively, through education and awareness, King says. 

If people can address their own trauma before they have kids, they can be proactive about not spreading their negative experiences. 

Treatments include mental health medications or psychotherapy techniques, King says, which can include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, in which patients address and change unhealthy thought patterns.
  • Cognitive processing therapy, a trauma-specific form of cognitive behavioral therapy, in which patients rework trauma-related thought processes.
  • Exposure-based therapy, in which patients are exposed to and learn to manage their trauma and triggers.
  • Family systems therapy, which helps the family resolve generational trauma in the context of the family unit by working together to better understand the family history of trauma and evaluate how each individual of the family affects the family as a whole.

Parents who have already had children can also use therapies to promote parent-infant attachment, including parent-child interactive therapy (PCIT), in which therapists watch parents and children interact and give parents tips on how to more positively respond to their children. 

PCIT techniques can include encouraging parents to praise their kids and mimic their behaviors. These strategies can help parents and children bond and develop a better relationship.

The length of a treatment plan varies depending on the patient. Typically, psychotherapy regimens last around 14 weeks for PCIT or 6 to 12 weeks for PTSD treatment. Patients can stay on medications for months or years, or they may choose to stop taking their medicines at some point after consulting a physician.

Survivors don't have to pick just one approach: One 2022 study suggested that a combination of parenting assistance and mental health treatment is the most effective way to address intergenerational trauma.

Over time, behavioral changes can even alter epigenetic code for the better, Beaulieu says, since epigenetic changes aren't necessarily permanent.

The focus is really on rewiring the nervous system. 

"Maybe our ancestors or parents or even we grew up in environments that were really unsafe, were literally under physical threat," Beaulieu says. "But now we have to train our nervous system that we're not in that situation anymore. I see it as aligning the nervous system, and I believe that any and all of us not only have the capacity to do that, but really have the responsibility to do that."

Other resources

In addition to consulting a psychologist or psychiatrist, other supportive resources to deal with trauma include the following:

Insider's takeaway

Intergenerational traumas are negative experiences that are passed down between generations. Behavioral factors, like cycles of abuse and epigenetic changes can both transmit trauma.

Trauma won't ever completely go away, King says. But most people can move past trauma. "The memory of the trauma, the impact that it has, is something that can be part of our lives," he says. "Trauma can lead to increasing empathy and compassion and can lead to all different forms of growth."

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