Intergenerational trauma and generational trauma are terms that are used to describe trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next. Each generation of the family may experience symptoms differently, but the experience can be traced back to the original family trauma. This might relate to issues such as sexual abuse, displacement, or refugee experiences.
Felt at both a conscious and an unconscious level, intergenerational trauma becomes part of a shared family cultural identity. Sometimes what is being shared is not acknowledged.
Surviving Intergenerational Trauma
People who have lived through traumatic upheaval and psychological dislocation might be described as survivors, but this term can be misleading. It might be true that the events were survived, but often the subsequent life of the survivor, and their children, remains lived under the shadow of the original trauma.
What are the signs of Intergenerational trauma?
The legacy of the original trauma might be seen in the way that a parent displays hypervigilance and anxiety in relation to their children. Projections come to dominate relationships.
This is sometimes expressed in the parent being intensely reluctant to let their children live independent lives. Instead of a natural process of development and healthy separation, the parent remains anxiously attached to their children.
The parent may become overprotective and seek to overcompensate for events that figure in their children’s lives, and which they think will be disproportionally problematic. In this way, the parent projects their own anxieties, based on traumatic experiences they have lived through onto their children.
This can create a claustrophobic emotional experience
- Parents might not allow for healthy boundaries, or tolerate their child’s expressions of independence.
- Instead, the parent remains too present and intrudes into the lives of their children.
- They are ever anxious that some kind of disaster or catastrophe is about to occur.
When relationships are governed by such anxieties, limits are placed on the development of ordinary affection. This limits the child from developing their own healthy self-confidence and autonomy. The child may grow up anxious and wary of catastrophe. This inhibits creative self-expression and stops us from becoming the people we are capable of being.
In cases of intergenerational trauma the original trauma cannot be laid to rest
Often these patterns of intergenerational trauma can be traced back across several decades. The untreated trauma that disturbs the psyche of the parents’ mind exerts a powerful influence over the generations that follow.
Without the parent understanding and trying to come to terms with their own trauma it is hard to break to chain of intergenerational trauma.
Sexual abuse and Intergenerational Trauma
Sometimes in stories of sexual abuse, what is found is that the victims’ parent was themselves the victim of childhood sexual abuse that was never confronted or adequately acknowledged.
Often there are instances where the abuser of different generations within the same family is the same person. So, a mother might watch the way her father (now a grandparent) holds their child and realise that it is the same as the way they were held. Something in the action sets off old memories and feelings that raise the memory of the way they themselves were abused and traumatised.
Sexual abuse can have the effect of dissociating the mind of the victim, and this then makes it hard for the mother to know how to understand what they are seeing happening to their child.
So the risk remains of the trauma of abuse being repeated and handed on to the next generation. And with it the same sense of helplessness that the parent experienced when they were abused.
In cases of intergenerational trauma, the psychodynamics that are part of the family identity are fraught with destructive affect that remain hard to think about.
They cannot be thought about but they continue to exert influence and fuel new cycles of self-destructive behaviour. So the next generation suffers and becomes the focus of attention without the origins of the problems being acknowledged.
Children and adolescents act out, fail at school, fail to flourish, become delinquent get caught up in food disorders and cycles of addiction and co-dependent ways of relating, without knowing that the mainspring of the problem is located in the families’ past.
Historical Intergenerational Trauma
Historical intergenerational trauma are instances where one generation of a family might have been caught up in genocide or might have been displaced and become refugees.
“Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. “Primo Levi
The effects of historical trauma are far-reaching. They can lead to the build-up of cumulative trauma. Over time further traumas are built up on top of previous historical traumas. There remains a grave sense of injustice over actions that the previous generation suffered. All of which complicates and interferes with the present generation’s capacity to live and flourish.
- How can the children enjoy themselves when their parents suffering is still so evident?
- How are we supposed to find ways of breaking the chains of intergenerational trauma?
Working With Intergenerational Trauma
We have to approach these interwoven intergenerational traumas with great sensitivity.
At the same time, we try to remember that the idea of historical and intergenerational trauma doesn’t explain everything away.
We need to try to find a way to acknowledge the historical dimension, but we also need to be able to speak about and acknowledge the contexts and perspectives of the present generation.
The Ghosts of Intergenerational Trauma
We want to be able to see what happened in the past while still being able to address our own needs in the present. In some ways, we are trying to lay the ghosts of the past to rest so that families are not like people trapped in ghost stories, ever fearful of being traumatised again.
In psychotherapy we try to create an environment in which the individual can separate one thing from another, to see the family experience for what it has been, but also to be able to see themselves and what might be possible for them now.
In this way, we try to be patient and see if we might develop a pathway to greater clarity and peace of mind about our own experiences and possibilities.
Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often key to developing a clearer understanding of the way intergenerational traumas have shaped your life and haunted your emotional landscape.
The chance to reflect on your memories, feelings, and experiences can be powerful and transformative. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you have developed.
I have been working with people on issues such as this for more than twenty years. My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live.
Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.
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