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What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma (also known as intergenerational or multigenerational trauma) occurs when someone experiences trauma and passes the trauma down to future generations (such as children and grandchildren). Trauma is passed down to future generations when the person who experiences the traumatic event(s) does not cope or process their pain. Trauma can be passed down through several ways including: genetics, in utero, coping mechanisms (or lack thereof), communication styles, cultural norms, and family values. Examples of generational trauma include domestic violence and sexual assault, substances use and addiction, racism, and child abuse. There are many groups of people who are vulnerable to generational trauma due historical experiences of oppression, such as racial minority groups; however, research suggests anyone can experience generational trauma and most people actually do to some extent.

How does generational trauma affect people?

People who are dealing with generational trauma might often experience similar symptoms to people with PTSD. This might include mood dysregulation, anxiety, and hypervigilance. These people may even develop substance and alcohol dependencies as a way to cope. Moreover, generational trauma affects families in several ways. For one, generations may struggle with processing and regulating their emotions. Further, families may be detached from one another, some people may be estranged, and there might even be violence within the family. Furthermore, it may become increasingly difficult to break unhealthy patterns as trauma continues to affect newer generations.

How can people combat generational trauma?

People who are dealing with generational trauma can deal with it in several ways. One option is to try family therapy. Family therapy is a great way to work through generations of trauma together. This can be difficult, however, as you need agreement from other family members in order for therapy to take place and be useful. Another option is to try individual therapy. Through individual therapy, people can learn to identify triggers and stressors and learn how to cope with them in a healthy way. Finally, a third (and probably most important) option to deal with generational trauma is to set healthy boundaries. It can be scary and seem impossible to set healthy boundaries with loved ones (especially family members), but boundaries are necessary to preserve the relationship and personal wellbeing. An example of boundaries one can set with family is, “If this topic comes up again, I will have to leave.” When we set boundaries with others, they may feel like we are being disrespectful, but really, we are saying that we’re not allowing them to be abusive towards us any longer.

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.