Intergenerational trauma from a mental health perspective
How can mental health professionals understand intergenerational trauma?
Támara Hill, MS, NCC, CCTP, LPC is a licensed therapist and certified trauma professional who specializes in working with children and adolescents who suffer from mood disorders, emotional trauma, and disruptive behavioral disorders. Disclaimer: This is an independent blog and ACAMH may not necessarily hold the same views.
I am motivated by the topic of trauma. This motivation led me to become a trauma therapist about 8 years ago. Of the 8 out of the 10 years I’ve been in the field of psychotherapy, I recognized a major need for real trauma therapists, especially for children and adolescents.
Although becoming a trauma therapist entails a license and certification as well as engagement in an approved training program, becoming a trauma therapist requires much more than this. It requires a deep interest in the emotional and psychological challenges of sufferers. It also includes an authentic connection to the client including knowledge, interest, love and compassion, and access to educational resources. Sadly, most people, including mental health therapists, struggle to understand what emotional and psychological trauma is, even though it affects about 26% of the United States child population and about 60% of adults. In the United Kingdom, an article published by the Independent stated that 4 systematic reviews of trauma-based studies showed only 0-22% of psychiatric patients were asked about a history of trauma. Another review showed that there were over 58,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse (a traumatic experience) in the UK in 2016. It’s a major public health concern (all over the world) that mental health professionals are becoming more aware of, but slowly.
Those who are aware of the importance of understanding traumatic stress and emotional trauma may not fully understand the topic of intergenerational trauma. We certainly need this to change.
I tend to define inter-generational trauma as a traumatic event that began years prior to the current generation and has impacted the ways in which individuals within a family understand, cope with, and heal from trauma. For example, the patriarch of a family may suffer from an untreated severe mental health disorder which causes him to engage in harmful behaviors toward his daughter. This daughter, having endured years of emotional and psychological abuse, now has her own family but has not been able to release herself (psychologically and emotionally) from the torture she endured. As a result, she begins to exhibit many of the same behaviors of the patriarch which leads to her own children exhibiting similar behaviors. These behaviors, including dysfunctional ways of coping, continue for generations. These unhealthy behaviors then become a “normal” way of raising children within the family.
Intergenerational trauma can negatively impact families as a result of:
- Unresolved emotions and thoughts about a traumatic event
- Negative repeated patterns of behavior including beliefs about parenting
- Untreated or poorly treated substance abuse or severe mental illness
- Poor parent-child relationships and emotional attachment
- Complicated personality traits or personality disorders
- Content attitude with the ways things are within the family
I’m sure you have heard of the families who hide sexual abuse for generations until someone decides, in the family tree, to end the secrecy and get real help. This is a common occurrence but something many clients tend to be ashamed of. In fact, it appears some mental health professionals may not know quite how to address it either. It has been my experience that it is easier for a therapist to allow the client to “guide” sessions instead of the therapist broaching uncomfortable topics of family trauma. Some of this avoidance is healthy, while some of it is not.
In addition, we must keep in mind that traumatic stress isn’t necessarily an inevitable consequence of a traumatic event itself. Traumatic stress is connected to how the individual processes and perceive the event and how they use their resources to cope. Trauma can result from any circumstance that outweighs your ability to cope. It is very subjective which is why we, as mental health professionals, must be careful not to imply trauma (even if the event would be traumatizing to us). This is a mistake I made as a beginning trauma therapist.
So how do you help a client or family suffering from generations of traumatic experiences? Awareness, education, and training.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about intergenerational trauma:
- Understand that intergenerational trauma almost always includes a loss of safety (emotional/psychological, physical, financial, etc).
- Be aware of the emotions your clients are expressing to you and be open to psychoanalyzing their reactions and the ways they discuss their emotions.
- Encourage your client to openly discuss (when ready) the loss they feel and why. You can eventually help them define and add meaning to their story.
- Help them understand that while you want to give them time to open up, you will not “stall” for time if the inter-generational trauma is the elephant in the room.
- Once the heavy processing involved in trauma work is over, lead your client to focus on designing a future far removed from their thoughts and feelings of the intergenerational trauma. They must understand that generational chaos can end with them.
We have so many lives that need us. We have so many callings in this field. It is up to us to offer our clients the support and care they so desperately seek. Becoming and ultimately feeling competent, knowledgeable, and ready is the first step toward offering our clients quality trauma-informed care.
Breaking the Cycle – Intergenerational Trauma
Intergenerational trauma is “transmitted through attachment relationships where the parent has experienced relational trauma and have significant impacts upon individuals across the lifespan, including predisposition to further trauma” (Isobel, S., Goodyear, M., Furness, T., & Foster, K., 2019). Fortunately, the understanding of this method of the transmission of trauma is now becoming more widespread and given a more serious focus than in the past. It is described by Van der Kolk that the ability to feel safe with others is “probably the most important aspect of mental health” (2015, p.81). But what if those who you are supposed to feel safe with, your own family, are the ones causing said source of suffering and are inhibiting your capability of feeling safe with and trusting in others? In a film created by The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, the contributors comment that within society, it is very common to come across children who are victims of abuse, who’s parents were also victims of abuse, who had parents that were victims of abuse, and so on. They mention that usually shoulders are shrugged, and the topic of conversations moves on but that “is what keeps the cycle going” (The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation, 2007).
In addition to PTSD, other forms of adverse childhood experiences, that come from a variety of other mental health disorders, can be considered intergenerational trauma. For example, if a parent is more preoccupied with trauma they’ve faced or are suffering from, they may not be emotionally stable or consistent in providing the proper upbringing of a child. Our emotional development starts from the day that we are born and our ability to form attachments to others is also key to feeling safe and therefore being attuned to other people. Disorganized attachment is understood as “not knowing who is safe or whom they belong to, they may be intensely affectionate with strangers or may trust nobody” (Van der Kolk, 2015, p.119). Through research, it becomes more and more apparent that there is “an intergenerational component, and the more we can work on it and stop it at its root and prevent it, the better it is for all who are suffering and also for society” (The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation, 2007).
Treatment for breaking this cycle can be as simple as educating the public to understand the way that their trauma, past or present, effects their families but also ranging from the training being available to front line professionals to help them whilst dealing with traumatized members of the community. If a Child Protective worker understands that when dealing with a distressed mother that has a more severely stressed baby, research shows it is more efficient to calm the distressed mother first to have a more soothing effect on the baby, they can therefore have a more active role in stopping the trauma from continuing (The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation, 2007).
More formally, it is purposed to utilize the family systems approach to dealing with and preventing intergenerational trauma. In Module 4, Professor Danielle Rousseau explains a form of family systems therapy – Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS). In this form of therapy, the focus is on the Self. IFS was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz when he realized that there were significant connections that his clients made between external family systems and internal self-talk. He “began to identify specific “parts” of the self, and determined that they all had value, and could learn to work together rather than against each other” (Rousseau, 2019). Additionally, within the family systems approach therapists are able to redirect and help heal pain from intergenerational trauma by utilizing 4 strategies: use of culture informed treatment, interruption of unhealthy family communication patterns, giving trauma a voice within the family, and helping parents offer children the permission to dissociate (Sells, 2018). When the combination of knowledge, education, training, and various forms of treatment are used, it feels as though the progression towards breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma is well underway.
Isobel, S., Goodyear, M., Furness, T., & Foster, K. (2019, January 1). Preventing intergenerational trauma transmission: A critical interpretive synthesis. Journal of Clinical Nursing. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.14735
Rousseau, D. (2019). Module 4 – Pathways to recovery: Understanding approaches to trauma treatment – Lesson 8.
Sells, S. (2018, October 12). A family systems approach to treating intergenerational trauma. Retrieved from https://familytrauma.com/a-family-systems-approach-to-treating-intergenerational-trauma/
The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation (Producer). Fran Waters (Executive Producer). (2007). Trauma & Dissociation in Children I: Behavioral Impacts [Video file].: Cavalcade Productions. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from Kanopy.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin.
Breaking the Cycle – Intergenerational TraumaBy Emily Coy
Posted 4 years ago on in CJ 720
View all posts90,000 phenomenon of intercoral transmission of mental trauma (based on the materials of foreign literature) - advisory psychology and psychotherapy
The article presents an analytical review of foreign works dedicated to the studies of the phenomenon of inter -ocolent (transgeneration) transmission of mental trauma. The relevance, social relevance and interdisciplinary studies of the phenomenon in co-time psychology and psychiatry are discussed. The article is structured in accordance with the main aspects of the study of the intercoral transmission of the psi-chic injury highlighted in the process of analysis of literature. nine0003
Key words: psychic trauma, intergenerational (transgenerational) transmission of psychic trauma, personality, childhood trauma, psychological consequences of psychic trauma
Heading: Scientific reviews generations relevant in terms of its scientific and practical significance in connection with the number of injuries, as individual as well as collective, faced by modern human. In modern domestic psychological science, the topic intergenerational transmission is studied to a greater extent from general psychological, social positions and mainly in its positive aspect as a resource coping behavior in offspring [Kryukova, 2009; Saporovskaya, 2008].
The article attempts to highlight the phenomenon of intergenerational transmission mental trauma based on the materials of foreign authors: psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, as well as pediatricians and sociologists. Start active attention to this problem can be attributed to the 60s of the past century, when clinicians became alarmed at the number of children who needed psychological assistance and those who applied to clinics in Canada, as well as other countries, whose parents survived the Holocaust [Danieli, 1998]. These children had various psychological problems, especially those related to identity, as well as symptoms that resembled the effects of a real injury, as if they themselves survived the horrors of the Holocaust.
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