What is intergenerational trauma?

Experiencing a traumatic event can have a significant impact on a person’s life but did you know that it can passed down through generations? This type of trauma is usually associated with large-scale traumatic events and doesn’t only affect those who survive them but can reverberate down the generations. The definition of intergenerational trauma according to the American Psychological Association is “a phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioural reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself.”

Whether this is done through family systems such as unconscious projection or epigenetic transmission is still debated. The initial research was focused on great-grandchildren of the survivors of the Holocaust and Japanese American internment camps but has now broadened to encompass other tragic incidents such family of survivors of the Bosnian and the Rwandan Genocides and the Partition of Pakistan and India although it is important to note that there is still limited research on this complex subject. Intergenerational or transgenerational trauma as it is sometimes referred to, can display itself through symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; guilt and aggression, difficulty in regulating emotions, and a proclivity for self-criticism.

The year 2020 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed. Additionally, during the war, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women, mostly Bosnian Muslim were subjected to sexual violence. The denial of this tragedy is becoming ever more prevalent, something that only adds to the trauma of the victims and their families. Similar to the case in the Rwandan 100-day-long Genocide, the sexual violence that occurred left many women with unwanted pregnancies. The Population Office of Rwanda estimates that 2,000-5,000 children were born in refugee/ internally displaced persons camps as a direct consequence of rape. Research shows that Rwandan children born of genocidal rape can be raised in such a way that unintentionally creates a context hostile to children’s healthy development. This could be due to the multiple structural and social obstacles that children face.

Often the stigma associated with rape led to the women being ostracized from their communities. In both Bosnian and Rwandan context, children born of genocidal rape represent a unique group, often referred to as secondary victims. Many children feel shame and guilt around their origins and struggle with their identity which often affects their mental health.

Nsanzumuhire Firmin, Nurse Specialist in charge of mental health at Ngarama Hospital, Rwanda and Ian Palmer, a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London, explained that a “functioning mental health service is a small yet important part of recovery from the social and moral consequences of war” but that it is not the only way to assist people in post-genocide Rwanda. They highlighted the role of education “to aid reconciliation and healing” and to further national unity, the government has “encouraged the population to abandon ethnic affiliation and to see themselves as Rwandans.” This is key concept in moving forward as a united identity assists in stopping the dehumanising of ‘the other.’

The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan affected millions of people and ultimately led to a collectively traumatised society, to make matters worse, there was no formal reconciliation process and for a long time, the full story of what happened has been smothered in silence. Yadveer Kaur, whose great-grandmother died in the violence, explained that many of the descendants have inherited a sense of numbness, prejudice and bias towards those that caused the harm. Kaur emphasised the importance of finding a way to understand the trauma to stop the cycle of transgenerational trauma and break away from the behavioural patterns such as addiction, lack of forgiveness or an inability to express emotions in a healthy way. Psychologist Erich Fromm, political philosopher Hannah Arendt and psychiatrist and political philosopher Karl Jaspers advocated for “universal humanism” as a way of healing, emphasising “the value of shared human experience”, again resorting back to this idea of eliminating dehumanisation and countering “the dangers posed by a national identity tied up in religion or myths of superiority.”

As the refugee crisis continues to escalate, it is essential to acknowledge the children of these families that have moved in the search for a safer life for themselves and their families. A systemic review by the European Journal of Psychotraumatology titled Crossing Borders: a systematic review identifying potential mechanisms of intergenerational trauma transmission in asylum-seeking and refugee families investigated intergenerational trauma transmission in forcibly displaced families where parents have experienced direct war-related trauma exposure, but children have no history of direct trauma exposure. Presently, there is still limited research on refugee families and intergenerational trauma specifically but as displacement becomes ever-increasingly more common, it is important that we understand the impact of parental trauma exposure, as the findings highlighted that refugee children can be affected by potential mechanisms of insecure attachment, maladaptive parenting styles, diminished parental emotional availability, decreased family functioning, accumulation of family stressors, dysfunctional intra-family communication styles and severity of parental symptomology.

Every person will deal with trauma, primary or secondary, differently but it is of the utmost importance that there are services available for people to access, whilst noting that healing processes will vary among different cultures.  For example, in order to break the cycle of trauma in Rwanda, a number of organisations were set up such as the Community-Based Sociotherapy Rwanda and the Rwanda Multi-Donor Civil Society Support Programme is supporting a project called Umusingi w’Amaharo Arambye (‘The Foundation for Sustainable Peace’ in the Kinyarwanda language). The aim of the project is to facilitate evidence-based grassroots advocacy and strengthen citizen participation to ensure recognition and prevention of intergenerational transmission of trauma and violence at the family and community levels.

Safiya Bashir explained how the impact of her nannajaan’s unhealed trauma as a result of the India/Pakistan partition had the ability to affect the fabric of her family over three generations.  Bashir cites a poem that she believes expresses the pain and process of healing that is needed. The poem is by Sanah Ahsan and titled, “Decolonising Distress”:

They call it ‘depression’, while you call it survival from oppression. Healing lies at the collective not only the individual perspective. So keep feeling. Let your tears fall in protest, release your rage in revolution. Remember your tenderness packs muscle. Stay tender. Please stay tender.