All trauma can have a long-lasting effect on us as individuals, and when it’s generational trauma, it can feel like a major – if not impossible – hurdle to overcome. But there is a way out.

We inherit a lot more than just our DNA from our family members. In many ways, we inherit their experiences, acting as living, breathing legacies of the good and bad our ancestors have faced. For some, this includes inheriting their trauma and their responses to that trauma. And while we can’t go back in time and heal our ancestors, we can work to heal ourselves.

What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma is trauma that gets passed from one generation of a family to the next. It happens when a parent, grandparent, or other ancestor experiences a traumatic event in their own life and that trauma shapes the way they parent their children. Those children then go on to suffer consequences of the trauma just as their parents did, creating a cycle of pain that can persist for many generations unless it’s actively broken.

The types of generational trauma symptoms that people deal with can vary greatly depending on the circumstances. Various examples of generational trauma include:

  • Mental, physical, and/or sexual abuse
  • Substance use
  • Neglect
  • Emotional defensiveness

The symptoms can also be more subtle too, such as a parent who is otherwise caring but is unable to display any signs of affection.

Anyone can be affected by generational trauma. However, it tends to be more common in descendants of those who have faced major collective oppression, such as those whose ancestors faced events like war, slavery, or systemic violence.

How generational trauma affects families

Trauma can have all sorts of negative effects on families. This includes some of the examples mentioned above like abuse and neglect, as well as things like estrangement, detachment, and trust issues. It can also have impacts on an individual’s self-esteem, with parents being incapable of properly supporting a child because they are held back by their own unmet needs.

Breaking the cycle of generational trauma

How long does generational trauma last? There is no set expiration date on trauma, and many families will pass down trauma responses from generation to generation for decades – and possibly even centuries – before someone recognizes the cycle and decides to break it.

Healing generational trauma isn’t easy, but it is possible. And while there is no single path toward this type of healing, there are things you can to do get headed in the right direction.

Acknowledge the cycle

If you want to break the cycle, you first have to acknowledge that it’s there. Trauma in families often goes unspoken, so this tends to require looking inward and coming to terms with the root causes of one’s own behaviors or beliefs.

Seek out professional help

Generational trauma is just as worthy of professional mental health care as trauma caused by an event you experienced firsthand. A qualified mental health provider can be instrumental in helping process and overcome inherited trauma responses, and can also help restructure relationships with family members.

Connect with community

More people than you may realize are dealing with inherited trauma. You might find it helpful to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences, and you may find motivation and support on your own healing journey.

When you break the cycle of generational trauma, you ensure that the adverse experiences of your past don’t go on to impact the loved ones of your future. And in doing so, you put a stop to the power this inherited trauma has over your life.

Retreat Family is a designated resource for family members seeking community support and supplemental insight into substance use and mental health treatment for loved ones. As such, we offer free access to helpful resources, online support groups, and more. Visit our website today to learn more, or reach out with questions about helping your loved ones receive adequate devoted care.