1. Home
  2. Science
  3. Health
  4. news
  5. 5 signs you have intergenerational trauma passed on through your family, even if you're high-functioning day-to-day

5 signs you have intergenerational trauma passed on through your family, even if you're high-functioning day-to-day

Serafina Kenny   

5 signs you have intergenerational trauma passed on through your family, even if you're high-functioning day-to-day
  • Intergenerational trauma is where the psychological effects of painful events are passed on in families.
  • A psychotherapist shared five signs you might be experiencing intergenerational trauma.

You're probably aware that your parents help shape who you are, but that effect runs deeper for those experiencing what is known as intergenerational trauma.

Intergenerational trauma, also known as multigenerational, transgenerational, or historical trauma, is where the effects of events experienced by a person's parents, grandparents, and ancestors are passed down through the repetition of behaviors and relationship dynamics, Hendrix Hammond, a psychotherapist based in London, told Business Insider. A person's environment or circumstance may lead them to behave in a certain way, which their child may mirror, with the cycle continuing for generations, he said.

Intergenerational trauma is also thought to have what is known as an epigenetic component, where past generations' experiences affect how certain genes are expressed in their children and grandchildren, with more research needed to confirm this.

The concept of intergenerational trauma was first described in the context of the children of Holocaust victims after Canadian psychiatrists noticed they were overrepresented in referrals to psychiatry clinics in the mid-sixties, two decades after the end of World War II. Since then, the term has been used to describe inherited trauma from enslaved people, including African Americans, as well as wars and natural disasters.

Trauma from personal events can be passed down too, such as child abuse or migration, Hammond said. One 2015 study found that the children of mothers who were severely abused in childhood were nearly 2.5 times more likely to experience persistent depressive symptoms than the children of women who didn't.

For example, Hammond said, if a mother is very depressed, her condition may make it challenging to develop a healthy attachment to her child, who might then grow up thinking a detached mother-child relationship is normal, which may be passed on.

However, a person experiencing intergenerational trauma may not be consciously aware because the symptoms may have become normalized Hammond said.

Hammond stressed that experiencing the symptoms below doesn't mean a person has intergenerational trauma, and those who are concerned should seek therapy.

Difficult relationships in your family follow a pattern

One of the most obvious indicators of intergenerational trauma is a repeating pattern of relationship dynamics in your family, Hammond said.

"For example, if a mother and daughter don't get on, I'd ask the mother how she got on with her mother, and you often notice a pattern that just keeps repeating itself. Maybe there was a rivalry that was traumatic for someone as a child, and this got passed on as a suspicion of all the girls in the family by their mothers," he said.

Hammond added: "There's these unspoken messages we get growing up which we then believe as truths and start repeating unconsciously in our relationships."

You're very suspicious of people

Hammond said that if a traumatic event in a person's family history occurred because of other people's betrayal or selfishness, they may have learned to be suspicious of others.

This can manifest as trust issues in romantic relationships if you've learned from your family to be suspicious of those looking after you, because romantic feelings are similar to those that babies have in relation to their carers, Hammond said.

You need to be around people all the time

Conversely, the need to be around people all the time could be an inherited need to feel safe in a group, Hammond said.

"As we were forming as humans, our brains were thinking: 'How do we stay safe? How do we feed ourselves? How do we just survive?' We're still primed in that way, so if some people have had trauma in their family history, they might always be looking around to check if they have enough people around them to help them survive," he said.

You struggle to regulate your emotions

Hammond said that responding to events in a way that may not be deemed appropriate, such as feeling numb when others experience emotions or behaving in an over-the-top way can also be a symptom of intergenerational trauma.

"Often people aren't aware of why they are responding in a certain way, but if you were to trace it back to their childhood and what's going on with their parents, you might see that people who have gone through really challenging trauma learn how to manage in particular ways, such as having difficulties expressing their emotions, which then gets modeled to their children," he said.

You may not have the tools to deal with low moods and mental health issues

Experiencing trauma can result in low moods and mental health problems. Although you might be genetically predisposed to experiencing issues such as addiction, the mental health issues themselves aren't the intergenerational trauma, Hammond said, but the response to them.

"If your family never had a mechanism for managing low moods, for example, reaching out and speaking to people, it can quickly turn into extended periods of depression," he said.

You self-harm or have destructive coping mechanisms

If you do have coping mechanisms for poor mental health, but they are destructive, this may be another symptom of intergenerational trauma.

As well as cutting or burning, self-harm can also be a person undereating or taking risks with their life. It can be an "indicator that someone is really repressed in their emotional responses to life," Hammond said.

Popular Right Now