What Is Intergenerational Trauma, and How Does it Affect Us?

“Your pain didn’t start with you, but it can end with you.”

― Stephanie M. Hutchins.

Traumatic experiences can take many forms, and a traumatic experience for one person may not be traumatic for another. Some people or communities face multiple experiences that cause complex trauma. The toll of these experiences, whether individual or large-scale, can reverberate across generations.

This theory or spiritual belief has been posited in the medical community for a long time but was not backed by hard evidence until recently, when the power of trauma to change DNA and pass on certain traits through generations has become more widely researched and understood.

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma occurs when genetic information relating to a traumatic event is passed to future generations, often from parent to child.

Intergenerational trauma can cause symptoms, behavioral patterns, reactions, and psychological effects from a trauma that was experienced by previous generations. It is not known how many generations this could affect.

What Causes Intergenerational Trauma?

There is a wide range of events and experiences that can cause intergenerational trauma. In addition to the common causes of trauma, such as abuse, neglect, assault, and natural disasters, intergenerational trauma is often caused by significant historical or current events many millions of people still experience. These include:

  • Religious or spiritual persecution
  • Colonization
  • Enslavement
  • Cultural genocide (for example, the removal of language, culture, and traditions experienced by the Indigenous peoples of North and South America, Australia, and New Zeland)
  • Forced migration (recent examples include forced migration from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, and Ethiopia)
  • War and conflict
  • Genocide and ethnic cleansing, including the Rwandan Genocide, the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • Famine and natural disasters
  • Global or national crises, such as COVID-19, the 2008 financial crash, and the Great Depression
  • The death, incarceration, or another type of loss of a parent
  • Systemic racism, discrimination, or oppression

Both social and biological factors can influence the effects of intergenerational trauma. The symptoms of intergenerational trauma can be linked to parents’ or grandparents’ behavior and parenting approaches since trauma symptoms can affect how they raise their children.[1] Trauma can also be transferred through encoding in the DNA, as traumatic experiences can affect our genome that we inherit from our parents.

How Does Intergenerational Trauma Affect Us?

The symptoms of intergenerational trauma can vary significantly and are influenced either positively or negatively by one’s living environment. In particular, whether or not the descendants of those who experienced significant traumas such as the Holocast, slavery, and war remain in contact with a potentially traumatic, unstable, or oppressive environment appears to impact the effects of intergenerational trauma. In some cases, it can be difficult to measure to what extent communities are affected by historical trauma or a current continuation of discrimination and conflict.

Symptoms and health outcomes that result from intergenerational trauma include: sleep problems, mental health issues such as depression and suicide, and physical health problems such as heart disease.

Studies show that some children of Holocaust survivors experience sleep disturbance and nightmares in which they are chased, persecuted, tortured, or annihilated as if they were re-living the Second World War, although they may not yet have been born at the time.[2] Third-generation studies have shown that grandchildren of Holocaust survivors showed higher state and trait anger, perceived others and themselves less positively, and were rated by their peers as having lower socio-emotional functioning.1 Additionally, Armenian genocide survivor descendants reported persistent distress, helplessness, guilt, and shame.[3] Aboriginal Canadians whose parents and grandparents were in the abusive residential school system had increased suicidal thoughts and attempts.1 Moreover, studies show structural racism and cumulative trauma in the United States as fundamental drivers of the intergenerational transmission of depression.[4]

How Is Trauma Passed On?

There is mounting evidence that trauma exposure passes on certain genetic information to offspring transgenerationally via the epigenetic inheritance mechanism of DNA methylation alteration, which affects the expression of genes and the metabolome.[5]

Each person’s genome is inherited from their parents and contains all of the information needed for a person to grow and develop. It is an organism’s complete set of DNA or genetic material. In humans, almost every cell in our body contains a complete copy of the genome.

Epigenetics explains how life experiences can affect the genome by altering the way our genes work. Trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to their offspring. The mark  is not a mutation but a change in how a gene is expressed.

Epigenetic research has found a wide range of evidence that stress and trauma can alter gene expression. This ranges from a gene linked to the release of cortisol, which is involved in the flight-flight-freeze reaction, to a gene involved in fat storage. Scientists discovered that babies who had been in utero during the Dutch famine were born heavier than average. It is theorized that starving mothers automatically adapted the expression in their unborn babies of a gene involved in storing or burning fuel. These children had higher rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and schizophrenia in middle age. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that they carried a specific epigenetic signature on one of their genes.[6]

Mitigating the Effects of Intergenerational Trauma

Research shows that families play a central role in child development and in the intergenerational transmission of trauma.[6] A parent’s genetic information and parental approaches can increase or decrease the risk of childhood trauma in their children. Experiencing trauma can negatively affect parenting ability and increase the risk of transmitting trauma to their children, which highlights the cyclical nature of trauma transmission between parents and children.6

Fortunately, this cycle can be interrupted. Factors that significantly impact the transmission of intergenerational trauma include family functioning, parenting approach, and parent–child relationship quality.6 Positive family structures can mitigate intergenerational trauma just as insecure attachment, maladaptive parenting styles, diminished parental emotional availability, decreased family functioning, accumulation of family stressors, and dysfunctional intra-family communication styles, and severe parental trauma and symptomology can exacerbate them.[7]

Family health can be a significant mediating factor in interrupting intergenerational trauma. Strong family health can include healthy familial habits, access to physical, social, emotional, financial, and medical resources, and strong emotional and social processes.6 In addition, strong communication, healthy and consistent boundaries, unconditional positive regard, child-centered communication styles, social support networks7, and therapeutic intervention can all mediate the effects of intergenerational trauma and interrupt the cycle.

If you or a loved one is struggling with anything you have read in this blog, please get in touch with Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] Bezo, B., & Maggi, S. (2015). Living in “survival mode:” Intergenerational transmission of trauma from the Holodomor genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine. Social science & medicine (1982), 134, 87–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.04.009

[2] Kellermann N. P. (2013). Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: can nightmares be inherited?. The Israel journal of psychiatry and related sciences, 50(1), 33–39.

[3] Karenian, H., Livaditis, M., Karenian, S., Zafiriadis, K., Bochtsou, V., & Xenitidis, K. (2011). Collective trauma transmission and traumatic reactions among descendants of Armenian refugees. The International journal of social psychiatry, 57(4), 327–337. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764009354840

[4] Hankerson, S. H., Moise, N., Wilson, D., Waller, B. Y., Arnold, K. T., Duarte, C., Lugo-Candelas, C., Weissman, M. M., Wainberg, M., Yehuda, R., & Shim, R. (2022). The Intergenerational Impact of Structural Racism and Cumulative Trauma on Depression. The American journal of psychiatry, 179(6), 434–440.

[5] Youssef, N. A., Lockwood, L., Su, S., Hao, G., & Rutten, B. P. F. (2018). The Effects of Trauma, with or without PTSD, on the Transgenerational DNA Methylation Alterations in Human Offsprings. Brain sciences, 8(5), 83. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci8050083

[6] Can trauma be passed down from one generation to the next? – psycom. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.psycom.net/trauma/epigenetics-trauma

[7] Reese, E. M., Barlow, M. J., Dillon, M., Villalon, S., Barnes, M. D., & Crandall, A. (2022). Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: The Mediating Effects of Family Health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(10), 5944. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19105944

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