Parents pass down all kinds of traits to their children, from hair and eye color to freckles. Research shows they might also pass down the trauma of their own childhood.
Early life experiences, such as neglect and abuse, can impact the structure and function of the brain. The effects of these experiences can appear in the trauma survivor’s offspring. A 2021 study found that moms who experienced emotional neglect as children went on to have infants with altered brain circuitry in areas responsible for fear responses and anxiety. The researchers used special non-invasive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to understand what was happening in 1-month-old infants’ brains. They discovered stronger connections between the brain regions that control emotional regulation in babies whose mothers experienced emotional neglect in childhood.
Scientists are uncertain if these connections affect children’s social or emotional development. For example, the infants could be predisposed to anxiety, but it is also possible the connections could boost their resilience. In either case, studies on intergenerational trauma show that children’s lives are shaped not only by their own experiences but also their parents’ experiences years before they were born.
What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
The idea behind intergenerational trauma is that exposure to early adverse events, such as child abuse, parental incarceration or divorce, substance abuse, poverty, or natural disasters, affects people so profoundly that future generations may be impacted as well. Also known as generational trauma or transgenerational trauma, this type of trauma often goes unrecognized. This allows the cycle to continue. Common symptoms of intergenerational trauma include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, insomnia, anger, and self-destructive behaviors.
Scientists first started exploring intergenerational trauma in the 1970s when psychiatrists observed behavioral problems, such as low self-esteem, nightmares, anxiety, and guilt, in children of Holocaust survivors. Children of Vietnam veterans report similar issues.
Since that time, the idea that stressful or traumatizing experiences may change behaviors in future generations has become widely accepted. However, the mechanisms behind how trauma gets passed down are less understood.
The main theories are:
This theory holds that trauma may be passed down socially and/or environmentally through behavior and early life experiences. This is often due to the stress of living with someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For example, parents with PTSD may be emotionally unavailable, neglectful, overprotective or abusive. They may have symptoms like always feeling on guard or reliving horrible experiences that make it difficult to parent effectively.
Growing up in this type of environment can make children feel unsafe. They may not learn healthy coping tools from their parental models or have a healthy perspective on the world, which can create an adverse experience for the child.
The genetic theory is that trauma may leave biological signatures in the parent, such as changes in stress-related hormones and pathways in the brain, that could impact their children’s biology. In some studies, traumatized parents had lower cortisol, changes in gray matter, and other biological markers of trauma as infants, before any adverse events occurred in their environment. Many researchers are skeptical of genetic explanations for intergenerational trauma.
Some experts believe early traumatic experiences may be passed to the next generation through epigenetic mechanisms (when behaviors and environment change the way genes work). Several animal studies suggest trauma can trigger epigenetic changes, but human studies haven’t yet proven this connection.
How to Mitigate the Possible Effects of Parental Trauma
What parents do today can have a significant impact on their children and grandchildren. If you experienced trauma as a child, here are a few steps you can take to minimize the potential effects on your kids:
- Understand your early life experiences may affect your child. This can happen even if you try to protect them.
- Learn how to identify the signs of trauma. These may include fearfulness, nightmares, substance abuse, memory loss, irritability, and feeling distrustful or always on alert. In younger children and teens, trauma may manifest at school through poor grades, dropping out, disciplinary issues, or avoiding school.
- Talk with your child about your experiences in an age-appropriate way. This will help them feel less alone. It will also equip them to share family history with future generations who may also be impacted.
- Offer emotional support early in life if you notice signs of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues in your children. Reach out to a mental health counselor or teen treatment program as early on as possible. This can help your child learn healthy coping and communication skills. Often, children benefit from attending family therapy with their parents, so the whole family can heal together.
- Foster an enriching, supportive home environment. Some studies have suggested this can help reverse the negative effects of trauma.
Left unaddressed, intergenerational trauma can affect more and more people over time. The new evidence shows that people who give a voice to their painful past experiences and get trauma-informed treatment can break the intergenerational cycle.