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  • Writer's pictureSandy Huynh, LMFT

What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Let's begin by defining the word “trauma."

Trauma is a response to a deeply disturbing or distressing event that overwhelms one’s ability to cope, causing feelings of hopelessness that can lead to a diminished way of experiencing one’s own emotions or ability to relate to others. Traumatic events range from physical harm, like a car accident or physical violence, to emotional harm, which can seem more subtle, like verbal abuse or childhood emotional neglect.

Intergenerational Trauma refers to trauma that is transferred between generations. One way is through “epigenetics," the belief that trauma can cause chemical changes in one’s genes which can be passed down to other generations. The second way is when a person’s trauma greatly impacts how they show up in relationships. These individuals can often inflict trauma onto others because they do not have the coping mechanisms to process their own wounding. Without the work of healing, this trauma continues to impact future generations.

An example I offer of intergenerational trauma is my own. My parents were refugees of the Vietnam War. They poured what little money they had into building a wooden boat that would eventually take them and nearly a hundred other people to Malaysia. The journey was treacherous. One would pray to not be attacked by looters and pirates, but then disease was another concern. My mother became ill on the boat, believing that she would die. My aunts would later tell me that the main worry that flooded her during that time was how she wanted to survive for her infant son, my older brother.

The refugee camps were in poor condition, infested with rats. Clean water was difficult to find, and my family lived off of monthly rationed cans of chicken and rice. These traumatic experiences deeply ingrained in my parents a sense of scarcity and fear and left them emotionally unavailable to me and my siblings. It wasn’t until I had space within my own personal therapy that I could name the grief that my parents were not able to express and more importantly, the grief I personally experienced as a result of their emotional neglect. It has been a long journey of healing that has brought me to a place of acceptance around these family dynamics, a journey that I continue to this day.

I share this story of my family in hopes that it will resonate with some part of what you have been through. I hope we can all feel less alone in whatever grief or pain it is that we carry. When we can speak our pain into power, when we can be witnessed and held by a compassionate other, when we can begin to cultivate a deeper connection to our internal wisdom and create a different relationship to our most difficult experiences – then healing can begin. Often intergenerational trauma can manifest into anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, negative thought patterns, or a stilted relationship with yourself and others. Intergenerational trauma also doesn't have to look like the example I offered. Every story is unique in the different kinds of legacies we inherit from our families or caretakers.

Healing can happen in so many different ways. It can happen through simply speaking to the trauma and allowing it to be witnessed by an unbiased other, through exploring what needs were unmet and how you can meet them today, through actively naming problematic thought patterns that limit growth thus making different choices, and through changing belief systems from that of scarcity to abundance. Psychodynamic, somatic, expressive arts, and Internal Family Systems therapy are a few (of the many approaches) that can help with this.

If you feel that intergenerational trauma is something that deeply impacts you and your ability to be in relationship with yourself and others, I invite you to get curious about that and see if finding a space to process that experience will open the door to a more fulfilling life.



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