What is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma happens when the trauma of an event is not resolved and is then internalized (when we “internalize” something, we make other people’s ideas and attitudes an important part of the kind of person that we are). These internalized beliefs and unresolved emotions are then passed down from one generation to the next in families and communities due to a lack of supports for healing and the changes that trauma creates in our coping skills and parenting styles. For Indigenous peoples, unresolved trauma relates to dispossession from land, community, and ceremony; colonial control over identity and the resulting lack of individual/collective agency in daily life; the mental, spiritual, and physiological impacts of experiencing trauma; and how childhood trauma affects personality development.

Intergenerational trauma is passed down in different ways:

  • psychodynamic processes: when parents project/externalize the terror, anger, fear, and grief that they felt during their traumatic experiences onto their children, causing younger generations to engage in learned patterns of behaviour without insight or awareness as to the reasons behind those behaviours
  • sociocultural processes: when young people see and learn trauma-related behaviours and beliefs from their parents or older people in the community, causing them to develop a set of beliefs about themselves and the world around them (e.g., “the world is unsafe” or “people are not to be trusted” or “I am not worthy of love or respect” or “It doesn’t matter, I’m just going to die anyway”)
  • biological processes: when traumatic experiences and social context change the expression of a person’s DNA, leaving molecular scars that can be passed down to descendants
  • the family system: when children are caught up in the emotional issues of their parents, the lack of boundaries teaches 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

Indigenous survivors of intergenerational trauma often report persistent feelings of absence related to ancestors or community members who have been murdered or disappeared. Lakota scholar Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart says that many Indigenous survivors create suffering in their own lives as a way to mourn these ancestors and keep murdered and missing people alive. This can often destroy the survivor’s own spirit, leading to an inability to feel joyful, free, and happy.

Survivors of trauma have many strengths, including creative problem-solving skills and the ability to work well under pressure. If intergenerational trauma can be passed down across generations, so too can intergenerational resilience.

Are Indigenous peoples the only people who experience intergenerational trauma?

No. The cycle of intergenerational trauma and the everyday impacts of trauma that affect later generations have been identified in descendants of Holocaust survivors, adult children of alcoholics, and the children of people who experience/d trauma in the form of civil war, genocide, and forced migration.

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 unmanageable stress as a result of one event (such as an accident or natural disaster) or a series of events experiences in a limited time frame or context (such as war). When the survivor gets back to normal life, the mental, physical, psychological, and spiritual adaptations they used to survive the event prevent them from adjusting to everyday life and the everyday situations that occur. Survivors can be hypervigilant (on guard), irritable, and may dissociate (experience a disconnection between thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, and/or their sense of who they are). They may also have problems with memory, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, and experience ongoing negative emotional states such as fear, anger, and shame. Being on guard, detached, and angry are useful during the traumatic event, as they may contribute to the individual’s ability to survive the incident. However, when the individual returns to daily life, these adaptations become counterproductive, creating a post-traumatic stress 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. Individuals with PTSD are stuck in time, reacting to situations of daily life as they did at the moment of the traumatic incident.

What is complex trauma?

Complex trauma occurs when an individual experiences repeated or prolonged trauma or torture while they are under someone else’s control, put in a position where they have less power and authority than others, or are treated as though they are less important than someone else. Indigenous peoples experience/d all of these things during colonization, as a part of contemporary colonial control, and as a result of the lateral violence and family violence that are part of the everyday impacts of intergenerational trauma. Examples of contemporary colonial control over Indigenous peoples include the child welfare system, the education system, policing, the justice system, the health-care system, and the Indian Act (Canada). People who experience prolonged or repeated trauma within the context of control often find it difficult to create identity. Survivors also experience a sense of helplessness that often results in a lack of personal and collective agency. They can also experience a lack of faith in the value and meaning of their own lives. Complex trauma creates:

  • a persistent sense of mental/spiritual unease or discomfort
  • chronic suicidal preoccupation and/or self-injury
  • explosive and/or extremely inhibited anger (survivors may switch back and forth between these extremes)
  • compulsive and/or extremely inhibited sexuality (survivors may switch back and forth between these extremes)
  • feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame
  • feeling/thinking that the perpetrator has total control even when they are not there, gratitude toward the perpetrator or convincing yourself that the abuse was not abuse, and acceptance of the belief system of the perpetrator
  • difficulty in relationships with others, including isolation/withdrawal
  • repeated search for a rescuer that puts the survivor in unsafe situations
  • 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 terror, anger, grief, and loss felt by Indigenous peoples who have experienced, witnessed, or inherited the memory of traumatic events creates an ongoing cycle of patterns and behaviours that are passed down across generations. These intergenerational impacts are felt on a day-to-day basis by individuals, families, and communities. Different families and communities experience different impacts and to differing degrees.

The processes of colonization — including genocide, abuse of women and children, banned ceremonies, re-education in residential/boarding/day 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 peoples and communities, resulted in a loss of personal and collective agency, learned helplessness, socio-economic and political dependency, internalized hatred, and a lack of resources to support healthy living. According to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (Canada), colonization has created the following impacts:

  • cultural identity issues, including Christianization and loss of language and culture, 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
  • internalization of residential/boarding/day 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., 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 a cycle of intergenerational trauma in later generations, including:

  • 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 you cannot influence the world; 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? What does healing mean?

According to psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, survivors of complex trauma find healing in three stages:

  • creating safety
  • remembrance and mourning (telling the story)
  • creating a future by creating a new sense of self and new relationships (with other people and with the natural world)

Healing looks different for every person, and it can change at different times in a survivor’s life. Healing is commonly described as:

  • balancing mind, body, spirit, and emotion
  • a spiritual process that includes transformational change and cultural renewal
  • gaining and sustaining hope
  • rejecting colonial labels and developing a sense of identity and belonging
  • changing community structures/processes and improving social conditions
  • rediscovering joy and learning how to love
  • being able to talk about the past without it overwhelming you
  • becoming self-aware about intergenerational patterns and behaviours so you don’t pass them on
What is trauma-informed care and trauma-informed practice?

Trauma-informed care/practice is not a specific treatment or healing intervention. 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. 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?”

Being trauma-informed means:

  • creating safe and empowering spaces
  • helping survivors change the way they view themselves and the world around them
  • supporting survivors as they regain a sense of control over their daily lives
  • building relationships with clients as a means of promoting healing and wellness
  • involving survivors/communities in the planning, design, and ongoing evaluation of programs and services

Practitioners and professionals who work with Indigenous individuals, families, and communities must also understand the connection between colonization/colonialism and the ongoing, present-day traumatic impacts experienced by Indigenous peoples and communities.

What steps do we take to create healing?

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

  • information and education in Indigenous communities about complex trauma and the cycle of intergenerational trauma
  • trauma-informed programs to treat 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 that blends specialized knowledge within the trauma disciplines 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.