Intergenerational Trauma: The Importance of Remaining Calm in the Face of Unsettling Times
Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.
April 6, 2022
Children are greatly influenced by how adults respond to the pandemic, the current situation in Ukraine, and all major life events. This week’s article aims to remind us of how our response to the current stressors we are coping with influence the children in our lives on a long-term basis. And secondly, we review information about the need to validate all whose lives are impacted by trauma, regardless of age.
Intergenerational trauma refers to trauma passed from trauma survivors to their descendants. It is also referred to as transgenerational or multigenerational trauma. Experts tell us that people experiencing intergenerational trauma may experience symptoms, reactions, patterns, and emotional and psychological effects from trauma experienced by previous generations—not limited to parents and grandparents.
Professionals who specialize in teaching parents how to help their children manage difficult emotions remind us that a child's primary source of security—emotional anchoring—is the people who care for them. When their parents are calm and secure, all is right with the world. Conversely, when caregivers are tired, distracted, stressed, or rushed, this sets the children up for system meltdown, temper tantrums and the most unreasonable demands. And worse yet, children may inherit trauma responses that could cripple them for life, i.e., intergenerational trauma.
Intergenerational trauma occurs when the effects of trauma are passed down between generations. As a result, they experience trauma symptoms and trauma responses that did not happen to them.
-Amy Marshall, American Psychologist
Intergenerational trauma has been documented in descendants of refugees, residential schools, and Holocaust survivors, demonstrating that this type of trauma continues to impact populations for generations after a collective traumatic event has occurred. Individuals affected by intergenerational trauma experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including hypervigilance, anxiety, and mood dysregulation. They experience trauma symptoms and trauma responses from events that did not happen to them.
Humans have survived for thousands of years by evolving the ability to adapt. Being in a survival mode may save us and our family on a short-term basis, but research has taught us that living in survival mode on a long-term basis is harmful. Future generations who inherit responses to stress and coping behaviors from their caregivers who lived in a constant state of "survival" may survive but may be robbed of the ability to "thrive." Thriving is possible when an individual feels safe and secure. People who live in survival mode of fear/trauma/scarcity from intergenerational trauma may not have the foundation for "thriving."
The survival mode remains encoded and passed down for multiple generations without additional trauma.
When someone experiences trauma, their DNA responds by activating genes to help them survive the stressful time. For example, if our parents or grandparents experienced trauma, their DNA coded itself to have a survival response that helped them get through those events, which passed down through generations. The survival mode remains encoded and passed down for multiple generations in the absence of additional trauma.
Our genetics do a great job of keeping us safe, even if this does not mean keeping us happy. When genes are primed for stressful or traumatic events, they respond with greater resilience to those events, but the constant state of anticipating danger is stressful.
When adults help children feel heard, it helps everyone feel less distressed and more calm.
-Jessica L. Borelli, Stacey N. Doan, American Psychologists.
Keeping calm with the distress caused first by the pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine makes maintaining a calm environment in homes and the workplace more of a challenge than many could have imagined. However, since all adults will regress during crisis times, the following guidelines may apply to all who are trying to maintain balance and prevent additional harm to colleagues and all who are feeling the effects of the chronic uncertainty that defines our current times.
Psychologists Jessica Borelli and Stacey Doan recommend six ways to respond to your kids' big feelings in an article bearing this same title. I believe that it helps all of us with anyone in crisis, including adults we support during these times. While acknowledging the challenges of coaching children to regulate their emotions when parents are experiencing their own distress, the authors recommend these tips.
Acknowledge and validate all emotions. When we validate anyone's feelings, we are not asking them to explain them. Instead, we affirm while responding to their needs to be seen and loved by those they count on in their lives.
1. Emanate empathy. Empathizing with anyone, even if we do not like how they express their feelings, is essential and may call on the adult to separate their feelings from the individual’s emotions. It is their right to feel whatever they are experiencing at that time that they need us to validate—not about how we personally see the situation.
2. Encourage people to express emotions. Helping frightened people clarify their emotions in a calm, non-judgmental way, may assist them in expressing what they are feeling. Returning to the discussion at a later time if the discussion is not fruitful may also allow a deeper discussion, including encouraging the child to draw or paint about their feelings.
3. Practice self-forgiveness. The experts remind us that all parents and care givers make mistakes. And if the someone informs you of what you did wrong, thank them and apologize for any mistake you may have made. We may learn something to avoid mistakes in the future with others we are supporting.
4. Don’t take it personally. Many of the highly-charged emotions someone may be experiencing have nothing to do with you. Getting hurt by their reactions may make it difficult for you to help support them through their experiences.
For more information on intergenerational trauma, see What is Intergenerational Trauma? Published January 19, 2022 by Amy Marschall. The article contains numerous references for additional reading and how to obtain help and support.
More information on helping children by responding to their emotions see Six Ways to Respond to Your Kids’ Big Feelings. Written by Jessica L. Borelli, and Stacey N. Doan, published March 17, 2022, UCI, School of Social Ecology. The article includes recommendations of articles on similar topics for supporting children and their emotions.