Types of intergenerational trauma

Intergenerational or trans-generational trauma has complex and multi-layered historical causes that commonly stretch from social conditions to the most intimate attachment relationships. Often there is an interplay between each of these levels and people seeking psychotherapy may be suffering from just one or all levels.

Levels of intergenerational trauma

Historical trauma


Historical trauma or historical grief is a relatively new term which originated in the mid-1990’s with the work of Dr Maria Brave Heart (Brave Heart 19981999a1999b, Brave Heart & DeBruyn 1998, Brave Heart-Jordan & DeBruyn 1995) on trauma in Native Americans. This outer layer of intergenerational trauma refers to a massive cumulative rupture inflicted upon the community through, for example, slavery, holocaust, war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced acculturation, or repressive regimes. Populations that have been affected by historical trauma include African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, First Nations people, Indigenous Australians, and families impacted by the Holocaust – to name just a few. Recent research studies in this area have involved Indian residential schools (Bombay et al. 2013), the offspring of former Burundian child soldiers (Song & de Jon 2014), the children of Cambodian parents affected by the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979 (Field & Sochanvimean 2014), Cosovan families (Schik et al. 2014), and young second generation Latino immigrants (Phipps & Degges-White 2014).

For elaborations of this theme in this module, please listen to Aileen Alleyne, Dori Laub, Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga, Maya Jacobs-Wallfisch

Examples in specific communities

Descendants of afro-caribbean enslaved peoples

Dr Aileen Alleyne (20042005) focuses on historical trauma and its interrelation with current conditions on trauma survivors and economic migrants. Her work focuses on the “enemy within”, the internalised oppressor. She clarifies that the internalised oppressor is part of the ego structure and therefore different from internalised oppression. She describes the internal oppressor as the agent of a developmental arrest that prioritises a dysfunctional relationship between black and white, at the expense of self-development. A split in the ego arises which necessitates the projection of self-hatred and shame and hatred/denigration of the white other.

Joy Angela LeGruy coined the term Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome to describe residual impacts of generations of slavery. This concept combines theories of multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression leading to the absence of opportunity to heal or access the benefits available in the society.

Omar Reid, Sekou Mims and Larry Higginbottom co- authored the book, Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder: Definition, Diagnosis and Treatment propose that the descendants of African slaves endure a direct relationship with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSlaveryD), thus negatively affecting them in a variety of ways from drug abuse, broken families, crime and low educational attainment to an inability to reverse poverty, achieve unity and build strong Black-owned institutions.

Descendents of Jewish holocaust survivors

The first therapeutic studies on historical trauma originated from a psychoanalytic tradition in the 1960s. One of the first investigators of the effects of the Holocaust was Judith Kesteneberg, a prominent member of a group of psychoanalysts whose work was published in Generations of the Holocaust by Bergmann and Jucovy (1982). Kestenberg’s work focused both on child survivors of the Holocaust, as well as children of the survivors (1980, 1982). She was particularly interested in the way that survivors experienced a collapse of time between the generations. Similar views were expressed by Haydee Freyberg (1980) a little later, whereas Ilse Grubrich-Simitis (1984), working with children of Holocaust survivors investigated the loss of symbolic thinking as a result of trauma.

Natan Kellerman, an Israeli Psychologist, conducted a literature review (2001) on psychopathology in children of Holocaust survivors and concluded that non-clinical populations did not show any significant signs of psychopathology more than other populations. However, clinical populations appeared to conform to “a particular psychological profile which included difficulties in separation and individuation, a vulnerability to post traumatic stress disorder and a contradictory mix of resilience and vulnerability when confronted with stressors”. Given that there is ambiguity about the extent of traumatisation in first, second and third generation individuals, his research advocates for a move away from epidemiology to the study of the way that trauma is experienced by those parts of the population that are affected.

Descendents of native American genocide

Dr Maria Brave Heart (Brave Heart 19981999a1999b, Brave Heart & DeBruyn 1998, Brave Heart-Jordan & DeBruyn 1995) is the leading figure in historical trauma among Native Americans. Her research focuses on the Lakota and the cumulative trauma of events starting at least from the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. She uses a “Holocaust model” model of research given that individuals display similar psychopathology as Holocaust survivors and their offspring (for example depression, alcohol abuse, suicidality and physical health problems.

Aboriginal Australians genocide

Atkinson et al. (2010) have investigated the cultural transmission and normalisation of historical trauma. They have linked these process with what Memmott et al. (2001) has termed “dysfunctional community syndrome”: There is an exponential increase in both the instances of violent behaviour and its intensity in each generation, identifying, for example pack rape committed by children as young as 10 years old.


The intergenerational transmission of trauma is not limited to victims. Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich (1975) discuss the German people’s shame at their complicity in the Holocaust and the shared defence against identification and association with the Third Reich. Volkan (1998) wrote about the silence and speechlessness of Germans and inability to speak of their shame and guilt given that they were the “victimiser group”. This process impedes the differentiation of contemporary Germany from Nazi Germany.

Familial trauma


Familial or societal trauma represents trauma that has occurred within the family such as the death of child, parent or grandparent, other loss or separation, or sexual abuse. The resulting changes in the family’s structures in the aftermath of trauma can be understood by using Bion’s work on groups (Berger 2014). Families are “working groups” whose function is “procreative, protective, nurturant, and educative” (Berger 2014, p.170). In the aftermath of trauma, boundaries, authority structures, and roles can change markedly as a result of a perpetual unconscious anxiety regarding the threat of exposure, amongst other factors. The family becomes “basic assumption group” (Bion 1960).

The phenomenology of these changes is varied. The development of family secrets is a common occurrence. Secrets can be particularly destructive, especially when they occur between parents and children resulting, for example, in parents increasing physical distance from children in order to preserve secrecy (Dyregrov 2014). Another result of familial trauma is the change in family members’ roles, particularly the well-known phenomenon of parentification (Chase 1999). This is likely to happen when a parent becomes unable to care psychologically and emotionally for the children, and one of the children fills the vacant role. Unusual rules or rituals are also common to defend against the pain or shame of the truth.

However, the unconscious effects of familial trauma on children are also of importance, but sadly harder to detect. Coles (2011) offers a number of illuminating clinical examples demonstrating how clients can relate in ways that have been affected by familial trauma of which the clients may know little about initially. The internal object relation representing the familial trauma is likely to be enacted by the therapeutic couple with participants unconsciously adopting a number of roles at different times.

For examples from this module, please listen to Prophecy Coles, Doris Brothers, Fran�oise Davoine, Dori Laub, Franz Ruppert and Maya Jacobs-Wallfisch.

Attachment trauma


Disorganized infant attachment is a second-generation effect of unresolved loss or trauma in the parent (Main and Hesse 1990). Clara Mucci (2013), for example, divides attachment trauma into two categories. The is first explored by Allan Schore (2011) who describes the lack of synchronised exchanges between primary caregiver and infant due to the parent’s difficulty attuning to the infant. The second, and more severe type, is due to significant neglect or abuse (psychological, physical, or sexual), with incest being the worst predictor of later psychopathology in the child.

Peter Fonagy and colleagues (Fonagy et al. 2002) write about the lack of “contingent” and/or “marked” mirroring by the parent, which can create difficulties in the child’s perception of reality: The child and later adult regresses to the employment of primitive modes of thinking which affect his or her capacity to understand his or her own and others’ minds and therefore the capacity for affect regulation. As a result of attachment trauma, entire worlds of affective experience become foreclosed for the child, as affects are not seen as signals, but as threats of becoming overwhelmed (Stolorow 2007). Both Bromberg (2006) and Brothers (2008), writing from an American relational perspective, stress the disruption in the child’s sense of self-continuity and the use of dissociation as a strategy for restoring a sense of self.

For elaborations of this theme in this module, please listen to Pamela Alexander, Clara Mucci, Franz Ruppert and Estela Welldon


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