What is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is trauma that is transmitted across generations. It is transmitted through:

  • psychodynamic processes, where parents externalize their terror, anger, fear, and repressed grief and project it onto their children, leading subsequent generations to engage in behaviours without insight or awareness as to the unconscious processes behind those behaviours
  • sociocultural processes, where the younger generation is socialized through behaviours modelled by the older generation and come to believe things about themselves and the world around them via their parents’ parenting style
  • biological processes, where traumatic experiences and social context change the expression of a person’s DNA, leaving molecular scars that can be passed down to their descendants
  • the family system, where children are enmeshed in the emotional issues of their parents, resulting in a lack of boundaries that encourages children to ignore their own emotional needs in favour of meeting the parent’s needs, which leads to problems with the child’s development as an individual

In Indigenous science and philosophy, intergenerational trauma is part of “blood memory”: a connection to the past carried from generation to generation through cultural beliefs, manitow (the Nehiyawak word for the basic mysterious energy of the universe), and the systems of the body. Survivors of intergenerational trauma often live with unresolved emotions created by the experiences of colonization, such as terror, anger, fear, and grief; persistent feelings of absence related to ancestors or community members who have been murdered or disappeared; and an inability to feel joy and happiness in life, related to the burden of ancestral suffering as well as experiences of chronic trauma created by colonialism.

Are Indigenous peoples the only people who experience intergenerational trauma?

No. The above processes have been identified in descendants of Holocaust survivors and other people who have experienced repeated, prolonged trauma or genocide.

Is intergenerational trauma the same as PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be part of intergenerational trauma, but PTSD is not the same thing as intergenerational trauma. Someone who develops PTSD experiences heavy stress during a limited period of time, during which they are exposed to threats or demands that are at or near the limits of their internal capacity to cope. When a person survives a single traumatic incident or traumatic events that occur within a limited time frame or context (such as residential school), the experience can create cognitive and physiological adaptations that include but are not limited to hypervigilance, irritability, dissociation, problems with memory, negative beliefs about oneself and the world, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, and persistent negative emotional states (fear, anger, shame). These adaptations are useful during the traumatic event, as they may contribute to the individual’s ability to survive the incident in physical, emotional, and spiritual terms. However, when the individual returns to daily life, these adaptations become counterproductive, creating a disorder that makes it difficult to relate to other people, stay in the present moment, regulate emotions, and sustain relationships with children, family members, and partners. The traumatic incident is a shock to the individual’s assumed path in life, and it leaves the individual with unanswered questions about why the traumatic incident happened. Constantly asking the question “Why?” and never receiving an answer creates an endless repetitive loop within the individual’s mind, body, and spirit that constantly triggers the traumatic incident. Individuals with PTSD are essentially stuck in time, reacting to situations in daily life as they did at the moment of the traumatic incident, unable to move past the event.

Many Indigenous peoples, however, have never had an assumed path in life or any belief that the world around them is safe. Their development has been marked by repeated traumatic episodes and instances of prolonged abuse, from genocide to residential schools to the ongoing racism and discrimination of the dominant society — and now to the lateral violence and everyday impacts of intergenerational trauma present in post-contact Indigenous communities. For that reason, many contemporary Indigenous peoples are not shocked by their traumatic experiences, because these experiences are commonplace and, for some, even routine. For Indigenous peoples, this chronic trauma is experienced within the context of colonial control, which often results in a distinct form of PTSD called Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or CPTSD. CPTSD describes the psychological impact of traumatic events that occur when an individual is captive, subordinate, and under control. For contemporary Indigenous peoples, this control happens in various ways, from the child welfare and education systems to the medical-pharmaceutical industry to policing to the justice system to the Indian Act. People who experience chronic trauma within the context of control are left with an altered sense of identity and self-perception, a sense of helplessness and lack of personal agency, and a lack of faith in the value and meaning of their own lives. CPTSD creates:

  • alterations in affect regulation, including persistant mental unease or discomfort, chronic suicidal preoccupation, self-injury, explosive or extremely inhibited anger, and compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality
  • alterations in self-perception, including shame, guilt, and self-blame
  • alterations in perception of the perpetrator, including attribution of total power to the perpetrator, idealization of the perpetrator or paradoxical gratitude, and acceptance of the belief system of the perpetrator
  • alterations in relations with others, including isolation and withdrawal, disruption in intimate relationships, a repeated search for a rescuer, persistent distrust, and repeated failures of self-protection
  • alterations in systems of meaning, including a sense of hopelessness and despair

Text for the bulleted list adapted from Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Lewis Herman, 1997.

What are the everyday impacts of intergenerational trauma?

The unresolved trauma of Indigenous peoples who have experienced, witnessed, or inherited the memory of horrific events creates an ongoing cycle of patterns and behaviours that are passed down from generation to generation. These intergenerational impacts are felt on a day-to-day basis by survivors and their families. Different communities experience different impacts and to differing degrees.

The process of colonization — including genocide, decimation by disease, abuse of women and children, banned ceremonies, re-education in residential schools, imprisonment and murder of spiritual/political leaders, imposition of colonial/patriarchal governance systems, land appropriation and large-scale development, removal from land, relocation, and confinement to reserves — has, for many Indigenous people, resulted in a loss of personal and collective agency and a corresponding sense of shame, self-blame, or internalized hatred. Colonization has also created negative effects on feelings of safety, socio-economic and political dependency, and a lack of resources to support healthy living. These effects have, in turn, created the following impacts, affecting the first generation after contact/colonization and all subsequent generations:

  • cultural identity issues, including Christianization and loss of language and cultural foundations, resulting in assimilation, cultural confusion, and cultural dislocation
  • destruction of social support networks that individuals and families could once rely on
  • disconnection from the natural world as an important dimension of daily life, leading to spiritual dislocation
  • spiritual confusion, including alienation from one’s own spiritual life and growth process, as well as conflicts over religion
  • dysfunctional families and interpersonal relationships
  • parenting issues such as emotional coldness, rigidity, neglect, poor communication, and abandonment
  • chronic widespread depression
  • layer upon layer of unresolved grief and loss
  • a deep-seated sense of shame and shame-based family dynamics
  • unconscious internalization of residential school behaviours including false politeness, not speaking out, passive compliance, excessive neatness, and obedience without thought
  • the breakdown of social glue that holds families and communities together, such as trust, common ground, shared purpose and direction, a vibrant ceremonial and civic life, and co-operative networks and associations working for the common good
  • flashbacks and associative trauma, when certain smells, sounds, sights, and people (e.g., the sight of a police vehicle) trigger flashback memories, anxiety attacks, and physiological symptoms linked to unresolved terror, anger, fear, and grief
  • becoming an oppressor and abuser of others after suffering abuse to oneself

The above impacts have led to intergenerational impacts most common in, but not exclusive to, the contemporary time period:

  • chronic widespread anger and rage
  • disunity and conflict between individuals, families, and factions in the community
  • substance abuse
  • fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)
  • low self-esteem
  • eating disorders
  • sleeping disorders
  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse, especially but not exclusively of women and children
  • psychological/emotional abuse
  • chronic physical illness related to spiritual and emotional states
  • internalized sense of inferiority or aversion to white people, especially white people in positions of power
  • toxic communication patterns, including backbiting, gossip, criticism, putdowns, personal attacks, sarcasm, and secrets
  • suicide and the threat of suicide
  • teen pregnancy
  • accidental death
  • dysfunctional community environment, including patterns of paternalistic authority linked to passive dependency; misuse of power to control others; and community social patterns that foster whispering and malicious gossip but a refusal to stand with those who speak out or challenge the status quo
  • educational blocks, an aversion to formal learning programs that seem “too much like school,” fear of failure, self-sabotage, and psychologically based learning disabilities
  • dysfunctional/co-dependent family patterns and behaviours replicated in the workplace
  • fear of personal growth, transformation, and healing
  • voicelessness and the feeling that one cannot influence of shape of the world one lives in; passive acceptance of powerlessness within community life; passively accepting whatever comes and feeling powerless to change it

Text for the bulleted lists adapted from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation Program Handbook, 1999.

Can a person heal from intergenerational trauma?

Yes! According to psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, survivors of trauma and those with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) find healing in four stages: creating a sense of relationship with others, cultivating safety, remembrance and mourning, and creating a future by creating new relationships. For Indigenous peoples, creating relationships includes creating relationships with the natural world as well as with other human beings. Developing a sense of identity apart from the control figure is also key. For Indigenous peoples, dispensing with colonial labels and markers of identity and connecting to ancestral teachings and tradition is an especially important part of healing. Developing self-awareness about patterns and behaviours — the negative behaviours learned within families and communities, and the adaptations that survivors of trauma create in order to survive — is also part of the process.

What is trauma-informed practice?

Being a trauma-informed practitioner or professional does not mean delivering a specific treatment or healing intervention or using one specific approach. Being trauma-informed is about recognizing the pervasiveness of trauma within Indigenous communities, meeting people’s needs without re-traumatizing them, and understanding the connection between an individual’s life experiences and the everyday impacts of trauma that create challenging behaviours in the survivor. Being trauma-informed means going beyond blame. Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you?”, a trauma-informed practitioner/professional asks, “What happened to you?”

To deliver trauma-informed services, practitioners and professionals must be able to do two things:

  • create safe and empowering spaces that assist survivors in changing the way they view themselves and the world around them
  • support survivors of trauma in regaining a sense of control over their daily lives by actively involving survivors and communities in the planning, design, and ongoing evaluation of all programs and services

Being trauma-informed requires practitioners and professionals to understand the necessity of relationship building as a means of promoting healing and wellness. It means that practitioners and professionals must understand the connection between the chronic trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples and ongoing government policies and practices that seek to control Indigenous peoples and communities. Ongoing colonial control creates chronic trauma within Indigenous families and communities, which fuels the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

If you are an educator, social worker, lawyer, court worker, police officer, judge, health-care worker, or someone who works with members of the public, then you must develop a trauma-informed practice.

Why is reconciliation key to addressing intergenerational trauma (and vice versa)?

Healing is not just an individual process — it is also a social one. To heal from intergenerational trauma, Indigenous peoples must:

  • regain identity
  • repair their self-concept
  • tell their stories and engage in a process of mourning that is acknowledged by the dominant society
  • reconnect their minds, bodies, spirits, and emotions
  • regain personal and collective agency
  • cultivate safety
  • create renewed relationships

This work will not be possible if Indigenous peoples continue to be under colonial control. For that reason, the systems and institutions of the dominant society must decolonize their approaches and Indigenize their policies, services, and supports. Supporting Indigenous sovereignty is part of reconciliation and key to addressing the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

What are the steps that we all must take to help create healing?

According to clinical psychologist Lori Haskell, the following is needed to create healing for Indigenous peoples in Canada:

  • information, training, and psycho-education in Indigenous communities about trauma responses and complex post-traumatic stress
  • trauma-informed programs to treat alcohol/substance use disorders
  • restoring attachments (personal/emotional connection within families and communities)
  • understanding healing as a process of transformation
  • support for expanded development of culturally appropriate approaches to healing trauma
  • a collaborative and integrative approach to specialized knowledge within the trauma disciplines in connection to Indigenous knowledges and worldviews
  • gender issues and the specific problem of violence against women should be foregrounded in trauma treatments in Indigenous communities
  • building on strengths, fostering resilience, and facilitating the reclamation of Indigenous cultures
  • long- and short-term strategies and approaches to trauma work in Indigenous communities

This work is not just work for Indigenous peoples. It is work that must be undertaken by Indigenous peoples, colonial governments, non-Indigenous people, and the systems and institutions of the dominant society.

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