Childhood PTSD and other mental illnesses can come from the parents. These behaviors can be traced back to their own parents' upbringing, and even back to how their grandparents were raised. Understanding generational trauma could be the key to stopping trauma and abuse from spreading to the next generation.
What Is Transgenerational Trauma?
When a person experiences trauma in childhood or adulthood, they might pass that trauma down to their children. Parents who were victims of adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, are more likely to deal with intimate partner violence or can abuse their children.
Generational trauma was first studied on Holocaust victims and how the genocide affected their children a generation later. These early studies were done by psychologists in 1966 when many children and grandchildren of survivors visited clinics for mental health reasons.
Further studies have been done on indigenous communities, as well as descendants of slavery, war survivors, and refugees. Generational trauma and its effects have been extended to those with a history of childhood trauma and how it has affected their children.
How Generational Trauma Affects Mental Health
Generational trauma begins with the first victim of trauma. The person does not heal from the traumatic events and develops symptoms of PTSD. The children of that person might develop secondary trauma from their parents. The children are impacted by their parent’s trauma response. The original victim of trauma might struggle with communication, conflict resolution, affection, and keeping functional and healthy relationships.
Children of parents with PTSD can develop mental health problems as a result of parenting. Parents with PTSD might be more controlling or hostile. It is also possible for parents to be emotionally distant and cold to their children. These children can develop depression, neuroticism, and higher levels of stress than children with parents who do not have PTSD.
How Childhood Trauma Can Come From Generational Trauma
Generational Trauma and Attachment Styles
Trauma that is passed down generations can affect how people relate with one another in intimate relationships as well as friendships. Attachment trauma starts as early as infancy. This type of early trauma can affect a person's ability to form healthy attachments. Attachment styles can affect romantic relationships as well as a person’s parenting style.
Different attachment styles include secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, disorganized attachment, and avoidant attachment. The healthiest form of attachment is secure attachment, which is common among those who had stable relationships with their caregivers. Other attachment styles may be the result of neglect, abuse, or childhood responsibilities that were not age-appropriate, such as caregiver roles.
A parent or caregiver who suffers from attachment trauma might find it difficult to develop a healthy relationship with their child. Depending on their attachment style, they might be emotionally distant, or unpredictable. Those with this trauma might carry their attachment style onto the next generation by copying their parent’s style of parenting.
Others might end up doing the exact opposite of what they experienced as a way to make up for what their parents did not do. A person with distant parents might become overbearing with their own children, and someone with controlling parents might become too permissive.
Intergenerational Trauma and Relational Trauma
Attachment trauma is specifically trauma that occurs during the attachment phase of infancy. Trauma that happens later in childhood is called relational trauma. This type of trauma includes experiences of neglect and abuse that they received from caregivers or parents. Relational trauma can also be passed down from parent to child. A parent coping with PTSD, ongoing abuse, or mental illness might struggle with taking care of their child.
Ideally, a child should trust that a caregiver or parent is there to care for and protect them while they are still growing and developing. Although, this is not the experience of every child. Those with relational trauma might have feelings of betrayal, abandonment, or resentment towards their parents. These feelings can carry into their own role as a parent, as they might be influenced by their parent's treatment. Their parenting style might mirror that of their parents, or they might feel afraid that they are becoming like their parents or caregivers.
Generational Trauma and Healing
In cases of childhood trauma and mental health issues in the family, knowing about generational trauma in the family dynamic can be an avenue for healing and forgiveness. A person who was abused by their parents might not understand the context of their abuse or their parent’s childhood experiences. Their family history does not justify the abuse experienced, but it can help the abuse victim reach a point of understanding, and possibly forgiveness. A victim of abuse could make peace with their experiences by better understanding the source.
Understanding the effects of generational trauma can also have a positive impact on how a person raises their children presently or in the future. A person who is still healing from childhood trauma might repeat these actions in their own parenting because it was what they were taught. Parents who learn about generational trauma can be better equipped to look at their actions and change their parenting style if it is abusive or harmful.
Education About Generational Trauma as a Form of Intervention
As more is studied about generational trauma, the findings have concluded that the best way to end the cycle of this type of trauma is intervention and prevention. Treatment for childhood PTSD should consider how the individual's experience plays a part in their trauma. Generational trauma prevention for the individual involves approaching how the trauma affects the individual and how it affects the family dynamic. Parents can learn how trauma affects their parenting style, and children can heal from current familial issues before it affects them as adults.