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What is Intergenerational Trauma? And How Does It Impact Addiction?

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Intergenerational trauma, also known as multi- or transgenerational trauma, is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) dictionary asa phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself.”

This type of trauma can impact many people in the family including descendants further down the line than just the children of the people who have experienced the trauma. When this type of trauma has occurred, the children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren can be impacted. Many times, people mistakenly believe that only the person who lived through or experienced the traumatic event is impacted and suffers. Today, we understand this is far from the truth. 

However, the good news is that despite the many people in the family who can be adversely impacted by intergenerational trauma, each person impacted can heal and break the cycle associated with the original trauma.

Who Experiences Multi-generational Trauma? 

When it comes to intergenerational trauma and research into it, the focus was first on the following groups: 

  • Relatives of Holocaust survivors
  • Relatives of Japanese-American encampment survivors
  • Relatives of those in the Vietnam War
  • Relatives and members of American Indian tribes 

As more and more is learned about the real impact of intergenerational trauma, it’s clear that far more than just the members of these groups and their relatives have been impacted and continue to be. Today, we understand that the following events and situations can also lead to this type of ongoing trauma: 

  • Living in extreme poverty
  • Experiencing the sudden and/or violent death of a family member
  • Experiencing childhood abuse including physical, emotional, and sexual
  • Having a parent or close relative incarcerated
  • Living with domestic violence 
  • Having a parent or caretaker with an alcohol or substance use disorder
  • Experiencing a natural disaster

Intergenerational trauma impacts many people today. And many of them aren’t even aware it’s happening. Essentially, when it comes to intergenerational trauma, the coping skills, mental health issues, and life skills developed from the tragedy or trauma are passed down from one generation to the next. Much like cultural habits or customs are passed down, these difficult to deal with traits associated with the trauma are also passed down. 

Examples of Intergenerational Trauma

There are different types of multigenerational or transgenerational trauma. And, as mentioned, many are suffering from it and aren’t aware. 

Example One: 

A Jewish woman who is a Holocaust survivor has learned to cut herself off from emotions and feelings in order to survive the atrocities she and her loved ones experienced. As a result, she continues to be distant and seemingly ‘cold’ to her own children. Her children then learn to be emotionally distant from others too.  They then have children of their own and both the parent and the grandmother are emotionally distant from them. This continues from one generation to the next until the cycle begins to be broken. 

Example Two:

A young man witnesses the violent and sudden death of a sibling. As his life goes on he learns not to get close to people so he won’t experience such deep pain again. In addition, once he has kids he becomes overprotective and develops anxiety worrying about if his kids will be okay or if something terrible will happen to them too. Then these children learn to worry about daily activities and develop their own anxiety about being safe. They go on to have their own children and the now grandfather hovers over the grandchildren, is anxious about what they do and where they go. This is then transferred to these grandchildren. 

Example Three: 

A teenage girl has been sexually abused by a stepfather. As the mother struggles to help her she isn’t able to be there for her because of her own issues with sexual abuse as a child. What’s more, her own mother was also sexually abused as a child. Not only are the coping skills and mental health issues passed down, but the person dealing with the sexual abuse doesn’t get the family support they need to heal because of similar unresolved issues of their caretakers. 

There are many types of intergenerational trauma and it can manifest in different ways. There are, however, some common ways that intergenerational trauma can show up in people’s lives. 

Signs of Intergenerational Trauma 

How each person deals with abuse or trauma they’ve experienced directly or that has been handed down can be different. One person in a family who experiences physical abuse may learn to overcompensate and people-please to cope and not experience it again. However, another family member who experienced the same abuse may become closed off to others and keep their distance from intimate relationships. 

The following list includes some of the most common signs that someone is living with intergenerational trauma: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anger issues
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Fearfulness
  • Trust issues
  • Intimacy and connection issues
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Emotional numbness
  • Thoughts of death, dying, and suicide

As you can see, the impact of intergenerational trauma can wreak havoc on the lives of not just the individual who experienced the trauma but also on generations to come. In fact, research shows that not only is the trauma passed on through behaviors, but also may have a genetic component. 

Trauma and Addiction 

Substance abuse and alcohol abuse is also known as substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are commonly found with many types of trauma including intergenerational trauma. Many times individuals who are feeling a deep and a large amount of pain feel that they simply can’t bear it, that’s it’s just too much pain. In these situations, they may turn to alcohol or another substance to ‘take the edge off’. 

What begins as a way to help them cope and get through the trauma often turns into a full-blown addiction. This too can be passed down through both behavioral patterns and genetics. Oftentimes intergenerational trauma is mistaken for other issues. This can include substance and alcohol use issues, depression, anxiety, and more. When this type of trauma is passed down through several generations, the connection can sometimes be overlooked. 

Often therapists and mental health professionals aren’t familiar with this type of trauma and the impact it can have on the following generations. This is, in part, why this type of trauma may go unrecognized and thereby untreated for generation after generation. 

Treatment for Intergenerational Trauma

Trauma, of any and all types, should be addressed as soon as possible with a trained mental health professional. This therapist or counselor should be specifically trained in trauma care or trauma-informed care. This is critical in order to effectively treat trauma of any type. When it comes to intergenerational trauma, the patterns and behaviors may be so well ingrained in the individual it’s difficult to see it. That’s one reason why a trained mental health professional with expertise and experience in multi-generational trauma is essential. 

In addition, it’s important to take an honest look at the presence of other mental health disorders that may be exacerbating or complicating the trauma. This can include any type of substance or alcohol use issue. Often, this can tend to mask the underlying trauma, particularly if it is intergenerational trauma. 

Getting treatment for trauma and intergenerational trauma takes courage. Breaking cycles and patterns that have been in place for many, many years can be very hard. There may even be resistance in the family. However, not only does the individual seeking help deserve to be free from the pain associated with this trauma, the generations to come deserve not to suffer as well. 

If you or someone you love is living with any type of unresolved or untreated trauma—intergenerational or another type—Futures Recovery Healthcare is here to help. At Futures, we have a program solely devoted to mental health treatment. In addition, if an alcohol or substance use disorder is present, we are well-versed in treating co-occurring disorders like this. 

Learn more about our mental health program online or call us at 866-804-2098.

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