Intergenerational Trauma in Children

Intergenerational Trauma in Children.

By Karen Elzinga 7/01/18

Intergenerational trauma is real, it's reactive, and is responsible for a lot of pain and suffering in modern Australian society within generations of families. Victims suffer the side effects of trauma related from numerous sources, with issues extending to physical manifestations of the mind, body and soul. This document explores the causes of initial trauma, the intergenerational trauma effects past on by parental behaviours and actions to their children, and the effects on generations within the family unit.

To look at what Intergenerational trauma is, we must first delve back and view the source of where the problem stems from, and that is the initial trauma. Trauma is a person's response to a catastrophic overwhelming event that a person is hard pressed to forget, or get over it. This condition belongs for example, to the Aboriginal children of the stolen generation (Atkinson, 2002, p.p 146-147). First hand trauma is often also experienced by people dealing with sexual assault, psychological and physical abuse (Black, Sussman & Unger). Traumatic events such as the death of loved ones  through accidental or deliberate means, natural disasters, terrorist related devastations, wars, famines, and genocide atrocities, these are also considered  events on a scale to cause intergenerational trauma (Caruso, 2017), (Coyal, 2014). 

Intergenerational trauma (IT) is the relative to trauma, it is passed on through generational actions to children via parental practices. Parents who have mental or emotional constraints, behavioural issues leading to intolerance and violence, and those who have issues with substances, either prescribed or illegal drug use or alcohol abuse. These are reactive conditions stemming from the initial trauma (Australian's Together).

 Trauma experienced by one generation effects the social, emotional and learning development of subsequent generations. Children of parents inflicting violence either directly or indirectly onto their children can be categorized in two ways. 1. Children will have a higher than normal tolerance to violence within relationships. And  2. Children will have a less than normal tolerance to violence within relationships (Richards). 

A study conducted by Clin Child Psychiatry found that intergenerational trauma stemming from sexual abuse, effects how parents pass on issues associated with incorrect attachment to child/ren. The study concluded that if the attachment between the parent and the child was severe, children may be at risk of developing strategies of self protection resulting in unhealthy relationship attachments throughout their lives ( Kwako, Noll, Putnam & Trickett). When appropriate attachment is unsatisfactory, it can lead to social and emotional skill set breakdown and interpersonal disruption and difficulties throughout the child's life (Atkinson, 2013).

For children and grandchildren of Aboriginal children from the stolen generation, evidence of  intergenerational trauma is compelling, after all these children's parent/s often had more than one form of trauma to deal with in their childhood and throughout their adult lives (Atkinson, 2002). As well as issues stemming from lack of attachment, children also experience violations of safety, loss of language, self concept and self esteem, have issues with emotional, social and learning resulting in shame, guilt, grief and loss throughout their adult lives. These issues if left untreated can develop further into similar issues of health and wellbeing experienced by their parent/s. These include but are not limited to drug and alcohol dependency, low socio economic conditions, mental health issues, shorter life expectancy, homelessness or imprisonment (Atkinson, 2013).

A research paper by Germ´an Caruso entitled The Legacy of Natural Disasters: The Intergenerational Impact of 100 Years of Disasters in Latin America gives a compelling and interesting view. It argues that intergenerational trauma is apparent more from the maternal parent than the paternal parent, in the instance of natural disaster trauma. Effects on children as early as in utero are reported, with effects relating from the mother's stress levels from the trauma whilst pregnant. This affects the child's brain development and decreases the child's educational and learning abilities throughout their life (Caruso, 2017).

War, slavery and genocidal trauma are often referred to as historical trauma. Classed as very similar to intergenerational trauma with the difference mainly being from what perspective it is seen from, i.e. historical trauma is seen from a communal perspective, where as intergenerational trauma is seen from an individual perspective. Parents affected by this type of trauma may pass on problems effecting children, such as a loss of cultural practices like language, cultural traditions, values and beliefs. Parents may instil a view of the world coming from a place of distrust and hostility leading to resentment and anger issues, and in some instances leading to violence. Physical and mental health ailments and subsequent substance abuse and incarceration also make up key components of the effects from intergenerational trauma (Coyal, 2014).

Intergenerational trauma's impact can be lessened by treatments and counselling practices specifically directed at the type of trauma the person has been exposed to. The number one standard of treatment is called, "Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy" (CBT). This form of treatment is designed for children who have experienced trauma, and could be one method used in reducing the severity of intergenerational trauma effects on their children and grandchildren (Coyal, 2014).

How a person perceives events that may be overwhelming for their psyche such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), will inevitably affect themselves, but will also have implications for the subsequent generations also. Trauma victims whether in the stage of the initial trauma or secondary trauma can reach out to the community and engage in helpful, stimulating programs of rehabilitation. One such program exists in America for return solders suffering from PTSD. A documentary entitled "Resurface" by directors Josh Izenberg and Wynn Padula, describes the impact of war and the rate of suicide, expressing on average that 22 ex servicemen die from suicide in America in a period of 24 hrs. Solders in the documentary described how the program designed around surfing, had changed their lives and the pressure they placed on their families, and some in instances saved their lives. These types of interactive programs where mate ship, sharing and bonding with like minded people with similar traumatic experiences work. They provide trauma victims with much needed support and friendship, and go a long way in the recovery process. (Izenberg, Padula, 2017).

In conclusion, it is evident that human beings are fragile. Governments need to take responsible forward thinking approaches to promoting a variety of programs to deal with the intergenerational effects of trauma. Programs that unite like minded individuals such as PTSD survivors of war pursuing group surfing. These types of programs provide unity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for people in a safe and collective environment. If we as a society acknowledge that intergenerational trauma exists, then we need to take action to further prevent the spread to future generations. Government agencies, community groups and individual volunteers need to step up and provide support, mentoring, and action programs to include children through to adults, with age appropriate, and individually targeted trauma rehabilitation. Intergenerational trauma effects do not discriminate; they can affect anyone, anytime, and in any generation.


Atkinson, J. (2002) Trauma trails recreating song lines: The trans-generational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia. Spinifex press Pty Ltd.

Atkinson, J. (2013). Closing the gap. Trauma-informed services and trauma-specificcare for Indigenous Australian children. Retrieved from http://earlytraumagrief.anu.ed...

Australian's Together. HomeList of stories‘Just Get Over It’ - Understanding Intergenerational Trauma. Retrieved from http://www.australianstogether...

Caruso, G. (2017).The Legacy of Natural Disasters:The Intergenerational Impact of 100 Years of Disasters in Latin America. Retrieved from http://www.germancaruso.com/La...

Coyal , S. (2014).Intergenerational Trauma — Legacies of Loss. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com...

 Kwako, L. Noll, J. Putnam, Trickett, F. (2011). Childhood sexual abuse and attachment: An intergenerational perspective. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/p...

Izenberg, J. Padula, W. (2017) Resurface. Retrieved from Netflicks & https://tribecafilm.com/filmgu...

Richards, K. (2011). Children’s exposure to domestic violence in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.aic.gov.au/publicat...

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