What is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is a cycle of patterns, behaviours, and impacts passed down in families and communities as a result of historical events that continue to affect those living in the present day. There are many reasons behind this cycle. For Indigenous people, the reasons relate to dispossession from land, community, and ceremony; colonial control over identity and the corresponding lack of individual/collective agency in daily life; the mental, spiritual, and physiological impacts of experiencing trauma; and how childhood trauma affects human development.

Intergenerational trauma is transmitted through:

  • psychodynamic processes, where parents externalize their terror, anger, fear, and grief and project it onto their children, leading subsequent generations to engage in behaviours without insight or awareness as to the unresolved emotions behind those behaviours
  • sociocultural processes, where young people are socialized through behaviours modelled by parents or older people, and, through this cross-generational knowledge transmission, come to believe things about themselves and the world around them (e.g., “the world is unsafe” or “people are not to be trusted”)
  • 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 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, leading to problems with the child’s development as an individual

Survivors of intergenerational trauma 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 and ongoing trauma created by colonialism.

Survivors of trauma have many strengths. Just as intergenerational trauma can be passed down across generations, so can intergenerational resilience.

Are Indigenous peoples the only people who experience intergenerational trauma?

No. The cycle of intergenerational trauma and the everyday impacts of that trauma have been identified in descendants of Holocaust survivors and other people who have experienced repeated, prolonged trauma in the form of long-term civil war, colonization, and 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, 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. Individuals with PTSD are stuck in time, reacting to situations in daily life as they did at the moment of the traumatic incident.

Indigenous peoples, however, have experienced repeated trauma over a prolonged period of time, including genocide, cultural genocide, racism and discrimination in the dominant society, and lateral violence in Indigenous communities that are struggling with the everyday impacts of intergenerational trauma. 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 occurs during systemic processes of colonization, marginalization, and social control. Examples include the child welfare system, the education system, policing, the justice system, the health-care system, and the Indian Act.

People who experience prolonged, repeated 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 persistent 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 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 survivors and their families. These impacts can also be experienced on the collective level, inside communities. Different families and communities experience different impacts and to differing degrees.

The processes 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 peoples and communities, resulted in a loss of personal and collective agency; learned helplessness; socio-economic and political dependency; a sense of shame, self-blame, or internalized hatred; a feeling of unsafety; and a lack of resources to support healthy living. These changes to pre-colonial Indigenous cultures have 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? If so, what does healing mean?

According to psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, survivors of trauma and those with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) find healing in three stages:

  • cultivating safety
  • remembrance and mourning (telling the story)
  • creating a future by creating a new sense of self and new relationships

For Indigenous peoples, creating relationships includes a relationship with the natural world. Developing a sense of identity apart from the control figure is also key. Rejecting/dispensing with colonial labels and markers of identity and connecting to ancestral teachings is an especially important part of healing. Developing self-awareness about patterns and behaviours is also part of the process.

What is trauma-informed care?

Trauma-informed care does not mean delivering a specific treatment, approach, 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?”

To deliver trauma-informed care, practitioners and professionals must be able to:

  • create safe and empowering spaces
  • help survivors change the way they view themselves and the world around them
  • support survivors as they regain a sense of control over their daily lives
  • build relationships as a means of promoting healing and wellness
  • actively involve survivors/communities in the planning, design, and ongoing evaluation of programs and services

Practitioners and professionals who work with Indigenous peoples and communities must also understand the connection between ongoing colonialism present in government policy and systemic practices and the traumatic impacts experienced by Indigenous peoples and communities.

Why is reconciliation and decolonization 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 subject to violent processes of colonization and social control.

What steps do we take to 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 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.

The Legacy Project