Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Within the Family System

The Effect of Trauma on a Person’s Health

Does one generation’s trauma get passed down to the next generation? Research indicates that trauma can often have repercussions for the entire family system, even if just one individual was exposed to the traumatic incident. To understand how trauma can be resolved, we need to understand how it travels within the families so that all affected parties can find healing.

 

Trauma occurs when a person experiences or witnesses a situation in which severe physical or emotional harm takes place. Episodes of violence, disasters, intense conflict, medical emergencies, neglect, manipulation, or life-threatening situations are often causes of trauma. Traumatic situations trigger our “fight or flight” response, and when we endure or barely escape harm, we may suffer recurrent memories or intense fear for our survival when we are reminded of the experience. 

Unresolved trauma may result in erratic behavior, avoidance, and ongoing distress. Symptoms may worsen over time, compelling individuals to find ways to cope with their distress. Some may find healthy ways to cope, such as through exercise, meditation, and counseling; others may resort to unhealthy ways, such substance use, to self-medicate their pain.

Does Trauma Get Passed Down Within Families?

Does trauma get passed down within families? This is a subject that has prompted a healthy amount of study over the years. 

 

According to a paper published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, “Intergenerational trauma generally refers to the ways in which trauma experienced in one generation affects the health and well-being of descendants of future generations.” After analyzing the effects of intergenerational (or transgenerational) trauma among refugee families, the paper explains that there is reason to believe that offspring of traumatized parents are more vulnerable to developing mental health issues and suffering from psychosocial distress.

 

Why is this the case? Psychiatrist and trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of the New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps the Score, emphasizes how traumatic experiences leave an imprint on our minds and bodies. “Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions,” he writes. “It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.” 

 

Therefore, when one person in the family endures a traumatic experience, other loved ones often empathize or bear the brunt of the trauma’s effects. Children of drug addicts, alcoholics, or physically or emotional abusive (or neglectful) parents tend to take on the pain of their mothers and fathers while being exposed to their own trauma.

 

In a paper published in Dialogues of Clinical Neuroscience, Dr. van der Kolk states that early examinations of trauma by the likes of Sigmund Freud and others revealed “patients’ apparent compulsion to arrange their lives in such a way that they would repeat their trauma over and over again.” The traumatic experience wasn’t something that happened in the past, but something that remained imminent and relevant to their continued experience of life. This is one reason why unresolved trauma remains impactful to a person’s livelihood — and how he or she interacts with others.

 

 

But there is hope. Psychologist Patrick Dougherty, an expert on relational trauma, indicates that those wounded alongside others can also be healed alongside others. In an article called, “Our Bodies Were Not Designed to Process Collective Trauma Alone,” 

he writes, “[T]here is one primary action we must take in order to not be worn down, stressed out, burnt out, angry, and reactionary: we must build and maintain ongoing meaningful connections with other people.”

Healing the Whole Family

 

Does a parent’s trauma always mean that a child will be more at risk for emotional or mental health conditions? Not necessarily. In fact, a different response to trauma — from both parents and children — can generate greater resilience and personal growth. When trauma is present in families, how it is dealt with (or not dealt with) determines the well-being of the family. 

 

At BeWell Network, we use a trauma-informed care approach to help individuals and families heal from the effects of trauma. Unresolved trauma can cause or perpetuate substance use, which ultimately causes more problems. We seek to compassionately uncover the roots of trauma and find safe pathways for resolving it so that issues like addiction can be resolved as well. 

 

Family systems therapy can be deeply helpful and healing for loved ones who have experienced trauma. A PTSD study published in Military Medical Research shows that multi-family therapy has had positive results, allowing for greater understanding among family members and reduced conflict. Overall, group support is an important piece of our program because it provides clients an opportunity to see that their pain is not unique, but shared among others, and peers can encourage each other along the path to healing.

Help for Trauma and Addiction at BeWell Network

 

BeWell Network is a family of evidence-based treatment centers. We help individuals suffering from addiction find the path to recovery, offering customized treatment experiences for the restoration of the mind, body, and spirit. If you or a loved one is seeking therapy for trauma and addiction, please get in touch with our team today. We can assess your situation and recommend treatment options, verifying your benefits for free. We have a no-hassle billing process and are committed to providing treatment designed especially for you. 

Help for Addiction at BeWell Network

BeWell Network is a family of evidence-based treatment centers. We help individuals suffering from addiction find the path to recovery, offering customized treatment experiences for the restoration of the mind, body, and spirit. If you or a loved one is seeking help for addiction, please get in touch with our team today. We can assess your situation and recommend treatment options, verifying your benefits for free. We have a no-hassle billing process and are committed to providing treatment designed specially for you.

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