Trauma causes significant impacts on a person’s emotional and physical health. It creates a process of toxic stress that causes damage to the nervous system, which is tied to every aspect of mental health and physiological functioning. Trauma involves one or more experiences where an event or situation impacts a person beyond what a typical, everyday stressor would inflict. Traumatic stress results from severe stressors where the affected person is unable to cope using problem-solving or otherwise being able to manage the stressful situation. Trauma experiences can sometimes last for long periods of time, and the negative consequences do not always diminish once the incident has passed.
Trauma is harmful when it occurs at any point in the lifespan, but it can have more severe effects if it is experienced for the first time during the formative years of childhood. During this period, particularly before the teenage years, the brain development of children is at a critical stage where trauma can disrupt healthy growth and functioning, effects that can often be permanent. However, trauma at any age can lead to serious emotional problems, difficulty performing in work or school, physical health issues, and can cause the affected person much difficulty in developing and maintaining close and healthy relationships with others. It is because of these effects that trauma can turn into a concern with widespread effects on the person’s life. It is not an isolated issue, but instead leaves consequences in many important areas of functioning.
Generational trauma, also known as historical trauma, racial trauma, or intergenerational trauma, are incidences of violence, death, threats of harm, humiliation, shaming, serious injury, or witnessing these events happening to someone else, which occur to one person or a group of people who pass on trauma symptoms to the next generation even when the next generation was not directly exposed to the traumatic events (Comas-Diaz, 2016). Despite not experiencing trauma themselves, these family members can experience the effects and display trauma-related symptoms very similar to or even the same as the person who endured the trauma. Generational trauma is so influential that even many generations later, the trauma symptoms can be passed down from family to family.
Among the African American community, generational trauma is seen in many families and communities. The original trauma dates back decades and even centuries and is a consequence of the hundreds of years of slavery in the United States followed by segregation, racism, and systemic oppression of Black citizens in this country.
Segregation, racism, and systemic oppression are the root causes of generational trauma. Before slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1862, the maternal figure in a home was the head of the household and had a much more important role in the family than the father. In fact, the birth records of Black children often did not include the biological father’s name. This norm, perpetuated by former slave owners, remained and often contributed to separating Black families. The later part of the 1800s is remembered in history for practices such as involuntary servitude, which was still legal as punishment for crimes; the leasing of convicts; the birth of the KKK; and rampant lynching of Black males and females of all ages, which continued until 1964. Just after the civil rights movement, welfare policies prohibited adult men from living in the homes receiving this government aid, further contributing to the disintegration of Black families. This was followed by extreme poverty among Black communities and increased imprisonment of Black males. Needless to say, Black Americans have never been granted the same opportunities as Whites and the system of separating fathers from Black families does not align with the way White families function in the U.S. where the father figure was needed to maintain an adequate economic standard of living in the family. Present-day generational trauma has resulted from decade after decade of severe oppression, racism, institutionalized discrimination in employment and in education, maltreatment in the legal system, socioeconomic disadvantages, police brutality, segregated neighborhoods and communities, and laws, policies, and regulations constructed to oppress Black Americans.
Generational trauma leads to specific behavior patterns and ways of interacting in the world including poor parenting practices and dysfunctional relationship dynamics. Parents with unresolved emotional problems pass on negative behaviors to their children who then go on to raise their own families in the same manner, displaying similar behaviors. Some people cope with trauma issues through alcohol or drug abuse, which further impacts every member of the family. Attachment issues between parents and children also develop as a result of mental health concerns and/or substance abuse, which further perpetuates generational trauma in families.
How to Heal
Healing from generational trauma involves a complex interplay of mending the separation inflicted on Black families and addressing systemic forms of racism and oppression along with healing on the individual and family level. The primary healing methods involve identifying and acknowledging the presence of generational trauma within the family, openly discussing how trauma has impacted the family collectively and individually, and avoiding minimizing or discrediting the presence of generational trauma and its effects on all members. Involvement in social action against racism is also an effective healing method for individuals and families affected by generational trauma (Comas-Diaz, 2016).
Personal and family-based healing involves building self-esteem and self-worth; developing resilience; and establishing a sense of belonging through social support. Many individuals and families find healing in understanding the history behind the oppression experienced by their ancestors, but it is critical for this exercise to be followed up with an understanding that individuals and families can stop the cycle of generational trauma through education, awareness, and continuously striving towards healing and recovery.
Comas-Díaz, L. (2016). Racial trauma recovery: A race-informed therapeutic approach to racial wounds. In A. N. Alvarez, C. T. H. Liang, & H. A. Neville (Eds.), Cultural, racial, and ethnic psychology book series. The cost of racism for people of color: Contextualizing experiences of discrimination (p. 249–272). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14852-012