Intergenerational Trauma


Also called transgenerational, cumulative or historical trauma, this concept is used to explain how both trauma, and resiliency, can be passed down from parent to child. This concept is often presented by looking at survivors of war, slavery, oppression or occupation (Potter, 2020). However, viewing this theory through a potentially more familiar lens - that of poverty - can help illustrate the multiple ways trauma can move through the generations, and the techniques that can help break the cycle (Bird, 2007). 

The term trauma describes the harm to cognitive functioning and physical, social and emotional well-being that results from experiencing stressful and unsafe events (MECES, 2021). Living through trauma has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, how we interpret and react to others, and how we engage our communities and environments (Potter, 2020). 

Trauma is broken down into the following categories (MECES, 2021):

  • Acute - originating from a single event or incident.
  • Chronic - due to prolonged or repeated exposure to violence or abuse.
  • Complex - caused by multiple traumatic events that are typically associated with invasive violence caused by people close to us.

The link between poverty and trauma has been well established. Experiencing low socioeconomic status (limited family income) as children is linked to lifelong complications including an increased incidence of mental health challenges, difficulties learning and retaining new information, and behavioral problems that reduce achievement and life span (Lieberman, 2009). 

Children are uniquely vulnerable to the adverse outcomes of trauma due to the impact of stress hormones on development. Chronic trauma in youth causes the body to adapt to high levels of stress hormones, which leads to changes in emotional, behavioral and cognitive functioning. This leads to a self-maintaining survival mentality that is difficult to overcome (MECES, 2021). 

Trauma is known to influence parenting behaviors and cause sustained parental emotional distress. Community factors like inadequate access to resources and social stigma also impact parental trauma (Potter, 2020). Parents living in poverty are more likely to experience higher blood pressure as well as experience higher and more consistent levels of stress hormones (Lieberman, 2009)

Impoverished families are exposed to more severe risk factors for trauma, more often. Such risk factors include (Lieberman, 2009):

  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Parental unavailability 
  • Parental unresponsiveness
  • Maternal depression 
  • Substance abuse
  • Harsh parenting styles that include corporal punishment
  • Community violence
  • Substandard housing
  • Lack of access to resources
  • Environmental toxins

The level of stress hormones found in children are directly related to the level of depression experienced by their mother, as well as to their mother’s socioeconomic status (Lieberman, 2009)

Those of us who grew up in poverty are also more likely to carry traits learned in poverty into our adulthood. We tend to be more risk averse, discount the likelihood of a positive future, and have an overall reduced sense of personal agency. Beyond traits, we also carry the outcomes of decisions made in poverty that tend to perpetuate poverty. For example, we are more likely to have been teen parents, have experienced domestic violence, and actively engage in survival strategies that maintain short term thinking (Bird, 2007).

Generations of Wealth

Families living within generational wealth experience benefits that go beyond monetary inheritance. Such families promote traits that influence the accumulation of wealth, including (Bird, 2007):

  • Future oriented thinking
  • A sense of agency, efficacy and capability
  • Work ethic through reward structures
  • Educational attainment
  • Risk taking
  • Promotion of status through networking and connections

Wealthy families also tend to have household characteristics that reduce the risk of future poverty. This includes an initial endowment (start up capital) and the encouragement of asset creation and development with a focus on future gains (Bird, 2007).

Strategies for Overcoming Intergenerational Trauma

When approaching our family structure with a focus on healing past traumas, we benefit from acknowledging and incorporating our family's culture and heritage while making the most of western therapies (Potter, 2020). This involves honoring the family unit’s history by placing that history into context with the society in which it existed, and currently exists.

Enhancing and improving mental health of marginalized groups, including those living in poverty, involves strengthening cultural identity, integrating the family into the community, and promoting political empowerment (Marsh, 2015). This act allows us to honor our past in a way that promotes understanding and facilitates buy-in within the family unit. 

When approaching any form of trauma recovery, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a primary resource. At the root of this approach is the use of a short term, goal oriented perspective focused on identifying, challenging and altering damaging patterns of thinking, maladaptive attitudes, and internally held beliefs that exacerbate our symptoms. Once such patterns of thought are identified, CBT offers a time constrained, structured strategy to replace them with more constructive thoughts which then encourage more constructive behaviors (Potter, 2020).

CBT allows us to use our matured perspective to reassess the events of the past and objectively evaluate the origin story of the negative, harsh, and often unrealistic thoughts we developed about ourselves at a young age. This approach allows us to break apart these thoughts, and test their components against reality, leading to what is known as cognitive restructuring (Torres, 2021). For more information on how each member of the family unit can use CBT to reduce the symptoms of trauma, click here.

Building resiliency on an individual level can promote the stability of the family unit while creating an example of positive coping strategies. It also allows us to reduce the impacts of poverty on the course of our lives (Bird, 2007). For more information on how to build resiliency, click here.

Building up our resources for coping allows us to enhance our resiliency and become more adaptive in the present day, regardless of the past. For more information on adaptive coping strategies, click here 

An additional strategy for overcoming intergenerational trauma is one taken from families with intergenerational wealth - developing a sense of agency (Bird, 2007). The development of a sense of agency allows us to see ourselves as active participants in our lives. As able to influence others and the direction of our lives in a way that promotes our own internal emotional and physical balance. This allows us to understand our needs and goals, think clearly, and advocate for ourselves so our future self is safe and stable (Rao, 2019). 

Consider the following tips on how to develop and enhance a sense of agency (Rao, 2019):

  • Control Outside Stimulation - Limit intrusive or negative influences by reducing time spent exposed to them. Unsubscribe to email lists or online forums that serve to target and enhance feelings of anger, frustration or inadequacy. Limit notifications on devices that can interrupt a train of thought. Make time each day to be away from phones, televisions and audio streams.
  • Be Selective When Associating - Our emotions are influenced by the emotions of those we spend time with, and others may pressure us to behave or think in certain ways that benefit them at our expense. Limiting the time spent interacting with people who leave us feeling empty and depleted is self-preservation. Instead, seek out people and environments that enhance and improve a positive and productive sense of self.
  • Address Physical Needs - When we are properly rested, have adequate nutrition, and engage in mind/body connectedness through physicality - our motivation, strength and stamina are all enhanced. Increased physicality is associated with a higher level of self control.
  • Prioritize Learning - When we live life through the perspective of continuing education, we create a growth mindset that allows us to be more open to possibilities and adaptable to change. Nurturing curiosity makes our internal world become physical reality, and allows us to let go of perfectionism and recognize ourselves as a work-in-progress.
  • Tune Into Intuition - The gut feeling we have when meeting someone for the first time or engaging in a new social situation is made up of thousands of pieces of information that our minds process without entering our consciousness. That information is coming from our current environment, our past experiences, and our innate physical desire to remain safe. We are well served by making room for intuition to influence our interpretation of the world around us.
    • Keep in mind that intuition can be influenced by bias, prejudice or emotions. While intuition excels at interpretation, be sure to use critical thinking when making final decisions.
  • Set Limits on Deliberation - For those of us with a low sense of agency, we may procrastinate, fixate on small parts of problems, worry without limits or crowdsource decisions from others without considering our own needs. We may also fear making a decision to the point where we act on impulse, so we don’t have to decide at all. A strategy to help address this is to set a time limit on major decisions. This way, we take the time needed to prevent pressured or uninformed decisions, while choosing a date in the future that we will make our decision by to prevent procrastination.
    • When someone is pressuring us to make a decision quickly, it typically is because it benefits them. We must always advocate for ourselves and take the time we need to decide on what is best for us and our loved ones.