Enduring Legacies: The Causes and Consequences of Intergenerational Trauma

Sep 13, 2019

Trauma has the power to derail lives. People who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying or life-threatening event may experience chronic struggles with relationships, jobs, and physical and emotional health. And PTSD is not only endured by trauma survivors – the effects of trauma may be passed down to sons and daughters, to grandchildren, and on through the generations. The historical emotional, physical and spiritual degradation of marginalized peoples may find expression in the traumatic symptoms of entire contemporary communities. This kind of (often unconsciously) handed-down, persistent trauma is known as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma.

Humans possess the remarkable ability to adapt to diverse environments in order to optimize our chances of survival. If we find ourselves in a threatening or harmful context, we make both conscious and unconscious choices that are geared to protect us. Even after the threat is extinguished, we may continue to hold the effects of the trauma in our bodies and minds. And so our survival strategies persist. We escape, perhaps through drugs and alcohol, perhaps by never fully landing in our emotions and relationships. Or we stay and fight, maybe by verbally attacking the people who love us, or by physically threatening anyone we believe has wronged us. Or perhaps we always defer to other people, allowing them to dictate our circumstances and define our choices. The initial source that gave rise to these strategies – the trauma – can, over time, become invisible to us, so that we begin to conflate the trauma effects with who we are. When we see ourselves as our trauma – for example, “I’m a depressed person” or “I’m an addict” – we are less likely to see and access our strengths, seek support, and initiate change. And we are more likely to pass along our traumatic adaptations to the people we care about the most: our children.

Writing about intergenerational trauma among Canada’s First Nations, Kevin Berube states that trauma survivors “often transmit the trauma they experienced to later generations when they don’t recognize or have the opportunity to address their issues. Over the course of time these behaviours, often destructive, become normalized within the family and their community, leading to the next generation suffering the same problems.” These problems often include the same challenges that confronted the original survivors: depression, anxiety, addiction, violence, and suicide. These traumatic effects impede the optimal functioning of generations of survivors and become entangled in webs of disempowerment and marginalization.

We can stop the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Healing begins when we name the trauma and its effects, share our stories, have opportunities to access help, and see ourselves as capable of enacting change. It is imperative that trauma survivors receive both individual and community-level support. Our attorneys use the civil justice system to hold perpetrators and the systems that support them accountable for their abuses. We help survivors of human trafficking, and those who have been victimized by authority figures such as priests, Boy Scouts leaders, and athletic coaches, recover the resources they need to pursue healing. If you would like to learn more about how civil law can help you on your path to healing, please contact us today for a free consultation.

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