Inter-Generational Trauma

Inter-Generational Trauma

by Fred Chou

Sandy was a young adolescent boy that was currently in a foster care placement with two care groups; he was with his grandmother on the weekend in his own reserve and then during the week days he stayed with a foster family in his city.  He presented with behavioral issues; anger and violence which was often directed in the form of self-harming tendencies as well as periodically lashing out at those who cared for him.  He would often steal and hoard food and despite efforts to reach out to Sandy, he would push those away that tried to love him.  Nobody seemed able to reach in and help him. 

Intergenerational Trauma (IGT) refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next.  It is the notion that “traumatic experiences endured during childhood or adulthood, might profoundly influence the well-being of their offspring” (Bombay et al., 2009, p. 15). For instance, children of parents who have experienced trauma are more prone to mental illnesses such as Depression, Anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and are more susceptible to stress-based responses (Danieli et al., 2015). Intergenerational trauma is important to understand when it comes to complex trauma as it can further perpetuate trauma-based responses and/or be part of the development of complex trauma.

Intergenerational trauma is composed of three components: (a) the degree and nature of parental traumatization, (b) the intergenerational transmission process of trauma, and (c) the behavioral and experiential characteristics of their children and subsequent generations (Felsen, 1998). Parents who have experienced significant trauma in their life time, especially relationally-based traumas, may have more challenges with parenting and attaching relationally to their children (Schore, 2010). The transmission of trauma can occur through direct and specific and/or indirect and general means. With direct and specific transmission processes, parents can have a direct impact on a specific behavior in the child as it is modelled through their own behavioural responses to trauma; while indirect and general models propose that trauma is transmitted through indirect means because trauma can impair the day-to-day functioning of the parent, which subsequently, impacts the child (Felsen, 1998). Recent studies have argued that there are a myriad of ways in which trauma can transmit from one generation to next, these include: sociocultural dimensions, communication patterns, attachment, and biologically through epigenetics whereby subsequent generations genetically inherit a greater sensitivity to stress responses (Bar-On et al., 1998; Kellerman, 2001; Yehuda et al., 2014).

If we were to go back to the case of Sandy, we would understand that he was removed from the care of his mother as a five-year-old boy as a result of his mother’s own suicide.  She had been seriously depressed and Sandy was often left for days without food. Though she loved her boy, she was impaired in her own ability to give him what he needed.  These developmentally critical years alongside consistent traumatizing events made it difficult for Sandy to trust caregivers.  He would self-harm to get the bad out of him as he believed he was the cause of his mother’s death.  Working with his extended family, we learned that his grandparents were at a residential school where they endured systematic racism, loss of their family, and physical abuse.  After this they both became alcoholics in an attempt to blot out their sense of shame and were neglectful and abusive to their own children. This story in point, is an example of how trauma across a generation has continued to impact lives.  Sandy’s grandmother to Sandy’s mother to Sandy himself and without intervention, it is plausible to believe that these cycles of pain may continue into yet, another generation.

There are various models to address intergenerational trauma, but commonly the literature supports the direction of addressing trauma from a culturally-sensitive and systemically-orientated perspective. An example of this is Goodman’s (2013) Transgenerational Trauma and Resilience Genogram which is a tool that counsellors can use to work collaboratively with clients. Goodman’s (2013) proposes that to address intergenerational trauma it should be guided by the following principles:

  • An ecosystemic understanding of trauma

Recognition that trauma is not just an individualized experience, but can be relationally-based and part of a larger systemic issue.

i.e. Sandy’s family had been the by-product of the abusive residential school system.  This traumatizing experience was not an indivualized experience and led to the suppression of rights, identity and cultural expression.

  • Focus on strengths

The acknowledgement of strength and resiliency within multiple levels, including the individual, family, and community. Acknowledging strengths can involve recognizing how an individual or family has overcome obstacles and challenges, rather than over-focusing on deficits.

i.e. How can the family/reserve be a point of strength for Sandy?  What are the strengths of his culture?  How can his past be an impetus to help him overcome his current struggles?

  • Culturally responsive

This involves the recognition that healing practices can extend beyond Western or Euro-American frameworks and that trauma-informed practices can be adapted in a manner that honors the family’s cultural worldview.

i.e. What practices and or/healing ceremonies can be implemented to heal not only Sandy but his grandmother?  What could this look like in Sandy’s life as he continues to grow and possibly adapt culturally responsive ways to processing his pain towards healing?

  • Attend to issues of social justice

Issues related to trauma tend to reflect the larger social system and can involve sociopolitical factors that may perpetuate forms of oppression.

i.e. What opportunities are available for Sandy?  How can we help him resolve his past and yet, embrace his future?  Are there potential factors that could be oppressive for him – discrimination? Equal opportunities? Access to effective and relevant therapy?

These principles are valuable to attend to when it comes to working with children with complex trauma and are part of a generationally traumatized family system. It can serve as a mental checklist for practitioners when working with these families and is integrated in the practice of Complex Care and Intervention.

A great article to reference in addition that will help outline historical trauma could be:


Bar-On, D., Eland, J., Kleber, R. J., Krell, R., Moore, Y., Sagi, A., … IJzendoorn, M. H. van. (1998). Multigenerational perspectives on coping with the Holocaust experience: An attachment perspective for understanding the developmental sequelae of trauma across generations. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 22, 315–338.

Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2009). Intergenerational trauma: Convergence of multiple processes among First Nations peoples in Canada. Journal of Aboriginal Health, 5(3), 6–47.

Danieli, Y., Norris, F. H., Lindert, J., Paisner, V., Engdahl, B., & Richter, J. (2015). The Danieli Inventory of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, Part I: Survivors’ posttrauma adaptational styles in their children’s eyes. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 68, 167–175.

Felsen, I. (1998). Transgenerational transmission of effects of the Holocaust: The North American research perspective. In Y. Danieli (Ed.), International handbook of multigenerational legacies of trauma (pp. 43-68). New York, NY: Plenum

Goodman, R., D. (2013). The transgenerational trauma and resilience genogram. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 26(3/4), 386–405.

Kellerman, N. P. (2001). Transmission of Holocaust trauma: An integrative view. Psychiatry, 64, 256–267. doi:10.1521/psyc.

Schore, A. N. (2010). Relational trauma and the developing right brain. In T. Baradon (Ed.), Relational trauma in infancy (pp. 19-47). New York, NY: Routledge.

Yehuda, R., Daskalakis, N. P., Lehrner, A., Desarnaud, F., Bader, H. N., Makotkine, I., … & Meaney, M. J. (2014). Influences of maternal and paternal PTSD on epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor gene in Holocaust survivor offspring. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171, 872-880.

About the author

Fred Chou

Fred is currently completing his PhD at the University of British Columbia in Educational Psychology. He is prolific author and brings a collaborative approach to our CTR model. For more information on Fred, please visit our website at:

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