The Unforgiving “Gift” of Generational Trauma

November 5, 2020
Omar Reda, MD

Patients want to pass on many things to their children; trauma is not one of them.

The field of psychiatry needs to pay close attention to the long-term psychosocial impacts of trauma, not only on trauma survivors as individuals, but also on their families and communities.

Trauma that affects 1 member of a family system has the potential to fundamentally change the whole family structure. It threatens to erode the very foundation of the family unit, and family members may start to see each other as enemies. Trauma has the power to make or break a family.

When the trauma story, out of cultural taboos and stigma, is seen as a source of shame and kept a secret, it can manifest in different ways, especially relationally, leading to a dysfunctional environment of toxic stress and silent suffering, a deadly web many families find themselves tangled in.

Early prevention is always better than late intervention because trauma can span generations. Trauma survivors can repeat the cycle and become part of the problem, or they can become part of the solution by investing in their families, normalizing the process by speaking up, and expressing emotions. To continue to choose the narrative is to choose to continue the vicious cycle and feed the fires that eventually destroy everything in their way.

Trauma that happens to children can shatter and confuse core beliefs they hold about themselves and the world. Children need to believe that the world is a safe place and that adults can be trusted to care for them. When these foundational basic needs are violated, these young beautiful creatures lose hope and start to wrestle with existential issues, doubting their own self-worth and beauty.

Psychiatrists working with traumatized populations need to establish safe spaces that serve as platforms where people can regain their voice and reclaim their narrative. Through encouraging and supporting open channels of communication and building bridges of trust, they help break the cycle for their clients, and that in turn helps bring hope in healing.

Interpersonal trauma that casts dark shadows on our beliefs about our innate goodness and shared humanity is arguably more harmful to the psyche than a largescale destruction caused by natural disasters. But the trauma story, if viewed as a learning tool, can help us become more resourceful and resilient.

We owe it to our loved ones to break the cycle. Not everything we inherit is worth passing to our children, especially not our trauma story.

Dr Reda is a practicing psychiatrist in Providence Healthcare System, Portland, OR.

Further Reading

1. DeGruy J. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Uptone Press; 2005.

2. Cohen E. From Generation to Generation: Healing Intergenerational Trauma Through Storytelling. Difference Press; 2017.

3. Grand S, Salberg J, eds. Trans-generational Trauma and the Other: Dialogues across history and difference. Routledge; 2016.