It’s easy to think of trauma as an individual experience. You might assume that you can only suffer from trauma if you personally live through a traumatic event. However, trauma that your parents or grandparents experienced can actually influence your life, too. This is a concept known as “intergenerational trauma.”

Families with survivors of war and genocide often grapple with generational trauma, even after they are safe from the initial threats of conflict and persecution. Intergenerational trauma is not always related to political events or large-scale problems. Addiction, abuse, neglect, and other issues that affect a family unit over several generations can all be considered forms of generational trauma.

Here are a few ways in which intergenerational trauma can affect families over many decades.


Sometimes, people simply deny that anything is amiss within their family unit. Some families try to keep the traumatic experiences that have affected them hidden. Older relatives may feel lots of shame for dealing with problems that were highly stigmatized in decades past.

They might also have grown up in cultures where mental health was always brushed under the rug and where talking about your mental health was seen as “weak.” Saving face and keeping up appearances may have been very important to them. When asked, they might outright deny that they went through anything traumatic. They also may refuse to talk about their experiences if their children are curious.

Impaired Self-Esteem

People who grow up in families that struggle with intergenerational trauma may struggle with low self-esteem. Their parents might not know how to respond when they have deep emotional needs.

Additionally, they may feel that since their parents went through so much, they have a very high standard to live up to in order to make raising them “worth it.” If they fail to meet this standard, they might think that they have failed their parents in some way.


Families who have been affected by intergenerational trauma might display codependent characteristics. Surviving trauma can leave people struggling to form healthy relationships, turning to substance abuse to cope, or lacking emotional regulation skills.

These effects can be compounded through several generations, and family members might develop toxic relationships among each other. Although they continuously hurt each other, they can also feel as though no one understands them like their relatives, and therefore, they cannot walk away. The idea of changing the dynamic can seem impossible when no one has successfully done so for several generations.


There are times when intergenerational trauma pulls families apart. They may find it painful to be around each other, and they end up backing away from relationships with their relatives.

Some people might choose not to attend family holidays, or they may go “low contact” with their family. At times, some family members might find that estrangement is the best solution to their tumultuous relationships with their relatives.

Shame Around Talking About Mental Health

When families discourage any mentions of intergenerational trauma, younger generations might stifle themselves when it comes to talking about their mental health. They may feel as though it’s taboo to discuss family trauma with their other relatives, so they may keep silent around their siblings or cousins so as not to upset older family members.

Furthermore, they might end up adopting this perspective when it comes to their personal mental health matters. They may avoid seeking therapy for problems like anxiety, depression, or other conditions.

Are you struggling to cope with generational trauma? A therapist can help you unpack your family’s past. Reach out to us to learn more about scheduling your first session.




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