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Understanding Intergenerational Trauma

From the Holocaust to the Stolen Generation to personal battles with addiction, the effect of intergenerational trauma is a real and significant challenge.

Inheriting trauma

In the 1960s, a group of psychologists in Canada began to observe high rates of psychological distress which appeared to be linked to the Holocaust. What made their subsequent research groundbreaking was that it wasn’t just in survivors themselves, but in their children.

Their observations sparked the first major wave of research into the notion of intergenerational or trans-generational trauma. Subsequent studies have confirmed the observations. 

“[The children of Holocaust survivors] present an increased vulnerability to psychological distress and to post-traumatic stress disorder,” a 2003 study in the American Journal of Psychotherapy reported. “They also suffer from impaired self-esteem, from problems with the inhibition and control of their aggression and from difficulties entering into intimate relationships as well as in handling interpersonal conflicts.”

As research has continued, our understanding of intergenerational trauma has expanded. 

Studies have explored the impact of intergenerational trauma on the children of slaves, Native Americans, veterans, refugees and Indigenous Australians who were taken from their parents as part of the Stolen Generation. Research has also shown that similar dynamics exist for parents with substance addictions, or who are survivors of sexual assault. 

“Whether the trauma occurs on a societal or personal level, it's something we think about a lot in our trauma-related work,” says Tori McCarthy, a senior therapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private, a treatment centre specialising in addiction, trauma, family systems and mental health. “There’s a very real risk of problems being handed down to children if parents are survivors of trauma, or battling addiction, and we’re proud to be one of Australia’s only private hospitals to have a dedicated family and children’s programs designed to break the cycle as early as possible.”

 

Trauma's Developmental impact

A range of theories have been advanced to explain how trauma is passed down through generations, the most straightforward of which is that the ongoing impacts of trauma affect an individual’s ability to parent properly. This, in turn, can impact their children’s development, a condition known as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Other theories focus on more specific impacts such as parents who struggle with silence, over-disclosure or re-enactment of trauma responses and children who over-identify with the trauma experienced by their parents. 

Some theorists originally suggested that children spent too much time thinking about the Holocaust, that they experienced elements of the Holocaust through their parents’ retelling of their experiences, or that parents focused excessively on teaching trauma-survival skills and inadvertently passed on distorted coping mechanisms.

mom and son hugging

“Some of the more complex theories might seem debatable, but when you zoom out, the overall notion of intergenerational trauma seems rather obvious,” McCarthy says.

“If a person has been through severe trauma or is struggling with addiction or mental illness, their ability to parent may be compromised. Their children may be less likely to see the modelling of healthy adult behaviour, and that may put them at a higher risk of challenges stemming from that experience as they progress into their own adulthood.”

 

Trauma and The Stolen Generation

In recent decades in Australia, the impact of intergenerational trauma has become increasingly understood by clinicians and policy-makers when it comes to Indigenous Australians as the country continues to come to terms with the ongoing impacts of state-sanctioned child abuse under Australia’s Stolen Generation policies.

“There’s things in my life that I haven’t dealt with and I’ve passed them on to my children,” one Indigenous Australian who was taken from their parents told the authors of the 1997 ‘Bringing them Home’ report. “Gone to pieces. Anxiety attacks. I’ve passed this on to my kids.”

“I look at my son today who had to be taken away because he was going to commit suicide because he can’t handle it; he just can’t take any more of the anxiety attacks,” they said. “I have passed that on to my kids because I haven’t dealt with it. How do you deal with it? How do you sit down and go through all those years of abuse? Somehow I’m passing down negativity to my kids.”

As the report itself noted, most forcibly removed children were denied the experience of being parented by a person to whom they were attached, leading to significant attachment issues (alongside a higher risk of emotional abuse and neglect). “Denial of [proper, loving parenting] results in an individual whose ability to parent his or her own children is severely compromised, and this is certainly my observation with people who were removed in early childhood,” child psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters told the report’s authors. 

Whether it’s societal trauma or personal trauma and addiction, it’s important for clinicians, therapists and rehab centres to be aware that intergenerational trauma is a real and proven risk. 

“When you're designing a rehab program you have to attack it at both ends. At one end, you have to work to identify and address the trauma with the individual – at the other, you have to identify potential impacts on children and parenting, and work to resolve those issues with both the client and their family members,” McCarthy says. “That dual focus is necessary if you’re going to stop the cycle in its tracks.”

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