The Legacy of Trauma
Most of us can survey our bodies and point out the scars or marks left by accidents and our encounters with life – a badly scraped ankle from a fall, a broken arm, a deep cut, a burn, perhaps even a surgical scar. These markings have left a tangible trail of past injury and trauma. What we cannot see are the internal wounds, the deep-down damage that may be for some the result of legacies of pain and trauma stemming from acts of cruelty, racism, injustice and horror that were imposed upon groups of people who have been victimized in any number of ways. This internal legacy of trauma is so devastating that we now know its impact can have a lingering intergenerational influence on the children and grandchildren of its victims.
Intergenerational trauma is a term first coined to discuss stress-related symptoms in children whose parents were Holocaust survivors. Social scientists and psychologists noted that a large number of commonalities presented themselves in the second generation of those whose parent or parents had been Holocaust survivors, and who were themselves experiencing mental health-related issues. These commonalities included such things as a distrust of others, hypervigilance, high anxiety, a tendency towards hoarding, panic attacks, nightmares, low self-esteem, secretiveness, over-eating, and cold, authoritarian parenting. The research noted that these manifestations, which could easily be explained as a response to histories of abuse on the part of the survivors themselves, were also exhibited in their children and appeared to be transgenerational in nature.
Although the work on intergenerational trauma began with studies on Holocaust survivors, the field has expanded to include groups of individuals who have been party to extreme suffering through oppression and torture, or stigmatization, in ways that create lasting damage. Currently, the broadening scope of the work also includes, but is in no way limited to, the children of those who survived Holodomor; the Khmer Rouge killings, the Rwandan genocide, victims of colonization and settler culture, residential schools for Indigenous peoples, victims of slavery, and racism. Researchers are also exploring whether the PTSD suffered by war veterans has ramifications that extend to the second and third generation.
The initial line of thought regarding intergenerational trauma was that its symptomatic behaviours were learned ones, as modelled in the home environment of the survivors themselves. However, research has recently suggested that while there is a component of modelling and repetitive conduct involved, there may also be a process of epigenetics that factors in. Scientists are currently exploring the likelihood that our very DNA can be modified by extreme stress or trauma, resulting in permanent shifts or alterations to our genomes which are then passed on to subsequent genetic generations. One’s capacity to manage stress responses seems to be an area that is particularly susceptible to the effects of intergenerational trauma.
When broadly understood, intergenerational trauma is thought to have three components: (i) the specific nature of parental trauma; (ii) the intergenerational transmission of that trauma to children and grandchildren; (iii) the behavioural characteristics manifested in subsequent generations. The transmission of such trauma is now understood to have taken place both through direct and specific means as well as through indirect and general means. Essentially, transmission occurs through day-to-day experiences including the sociocultural as well as in communication patterns, attachment, and epigenetics. Parenting and modelling play significant roles. We know, for instance, that in healthy environments, children learn their coping skills from their family members and that their resilience and ability to navigate the world stem initially from an emotionally stable and supportive environment.
The International Center for Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma in New York has as its mandate the mission to “support and facilitate multidimensional, multidisciplinary, national and international, comparative, integrative, dialogue among social scientists and scholars,” (www. ICMGLT – International Center for MultiGenerational Legacies of Trauma). They have a multi-pronged approach which includes raising awareness; finding ways to prevent destructive legacies from being perpetuated while also promoting treatment; and advocacy work. Among the many resources the Center provides is a link to the Danieli Inventory of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. This is a standardized questionnaire used to assess the social and psychological impact of intergenerational trauma on subsequent generations of children.
Yael Danieli, Vera Paisner, Jutta Lindert and Brian Engdahl have published some of their ongoing work in this field, in the article, “The Danieli Inventory of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, Part II: Reparative Adaptational Impacts,” The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, May 2015. Having studied a number of Holocaust survivors and their offspring, they posited the following:
Recent research… supported the presence of three distinguishable post trauma adaptational styles among survivors: victim, numb and fighter. Briefly, victim style was evident in being stuck in the loss and trauma rupture, overprotectiveness, and emotional volatility and control; numb style was characterized by emotional isolation and detachment, intolerance of weakness, and conspiracy of silence in the family; and fighter style was manifest in valuing mastery and justice and valuing and maintaining Jewish (group) identity. Theory and research suggests that these styles would be predictive of an array of clinically and research-relevant outcomes across generations…
Although the article cited refers specifically to the central group of individuals who were the subjects of their study, the findings may be understood to have application to other groups. It is clear that distinctive patterns of behaviour and mental-health challenges emerge from an understanding of the research into the legacy of trauma.
Acknowledging this legacy, and the totality of circumstances that create such trauma, is vital to our individual journeys as informed and compassionate participants in the human experience.
Chou, Fred, “Inter-Generational Trauma,” Complex Trauma Resources, 2017-10-04, (Inter-Generational Trauma (complextrauma.ca) as accessed 2021-04-27).
Danieli, Yael, Vera Paisner, Jutta Lindert and Brian E. Engdahl, “The Danieli Inventory of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, Part II: Reparative Adaptational Impacts,” The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, May 2015 ((PDF) The Danieli Inventory of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, Part II: Reparative Adaptational Impacts (researchgate.net), as accessed 2021-04-29).
DeAngelis, Tori, “The Legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come,” American Psychological Association, February 2019, Vol. 50, No. 2., (The legacy of trauma (apa.org) as accessed 2021-04-27).
Franco, Fabiana, “How Intergenerational Trauma Impacts Families,” Psych Central, April 21, 2020 (How Intergenerational Trauma Impacts Families (psychcentral.com) as accessed 2021-04-27).
Gillespie, Claire, “What is Generational Trauma? Here’s How Experts Explain It,” Health, October 27, 2020 (What Is Generational Trauma? Here’s How Experts Explain It | Health.com, as accessed 2021-04-27).