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 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, , , Brave Heart & DeBruyn , Brave Heart-Jordan & DeBruyn ) 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. ), the offspring of former Burundian child soldiers (Song & de Jon ), the children of Cambodian parents affected by the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979 (Field & Sochanvimean ), Cosovan families (Schik et al. ), and young second generation Latino immigrants (Phipps & Degges-White ).
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
Dr Aileen Alleyne (, ) 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.
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.
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.co- authored the book,
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 (). 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 ( ) 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.
Dr Maria Brave Heart (Brave Heart, , , Brave Heart & DeBruyn , Brave Heart-Jordan & DeBruyn ) 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.
Atkinson et al. () 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 () 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 ( ) 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 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 (). 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” ( ).
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 (). Another result of familial trauma is the change in family members’ roles, particularly the well-known phenomenon of parentification ( ). 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 () 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.
Disorganized infant attachment is a second-generation effect of unresolved loss or trauma in the parent (). Clara Mucci ( ), for example, divides attachment trauma into two categories. The is first explored by Allan Schore ( ) 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.) 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 ( ). Both Bromberg ( ) and Brothers ( ), 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
Alexsandrowicz, D 1973, ‘Children of concentration camp survivors’ in EJ Anthony & C Koupernik (eds), The child and his family, Wiley, New York, NY, pp. 385-392.
Alleyne, A 2004, December, ‘The internal oppressor and black identity wounding’, Race and Culture, [online] available at: http://www.confer.uk.com/modules/intergenerational/pdf/aileen-alleyne-paper2.pdf [Accessed 17 Oct. 2014].
Alleyne, A 2005, ‘Invisible injuries and silent witnesses: the shadow of racial oppression in workplace contexts’, Psychodynamic Practice, [online] vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 283-299, available at: http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1080/14753630500232222 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2014].
Atkinson J, Nelson J & Atkinson C (2010), ‘Trauma, transgenerational transfer and effects on community wellbeing’, in M Purdie M, P Dudgeon & R Walker (eds), Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice (pp. 135-144), Commonwealth of Australia.
Barocas, H 1975, ‘Children of purgatory: reflections on the concentration camp survival syndrome’, International Journal of Social Psychiatry, [online] vol. 21, pp. 87-92, available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/002076407502100202 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2014].
Barocas, H & Barocas, C 1973, ‘Manifestations of concentration camp effects on the second generation’, American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 130, no. 7, pp. 820-821.
Barocas, H & Barocas C 1980, ‘Separation and individuation conflict in children of Holocaust survivors’ Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, vol. 11, pp. 6-14.
Berger, S 2014, ‘Whose trauma is it anyway? Furthering our understanding of its intergenerational transmission’, Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, [online] vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 169-181, Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15289168.2014.937975 [Accessed 1 Nov. 2014].
Bergmann, MS & Jacoby, ME 1982, Generations of the Holocaust, Basic Books, New York, NY.
Bettleheim, B 1943, ‘Individual and mass behavior in extreme situations’, Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology, vol. 38, pp. 417-452.
Bion, WR (1960), Experiences in groups, Routledge, London, England, 1968.
Blejmar, J & Fortuny, N 2013 ‘Introduction to special issue’, Journal of Romance Studies, [online] vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 1-5, available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Bombay, A, Matheson, K & Anisman, H 2013, ‘The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: implications for the concept of historical trauma. Transcultural Psychiatry, [online] vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 320-338, available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Brave Heart, M 1998, ‘The return to the sacred path: healing the historical trauma and historical unresolved grief response among the Lakota through a psychoeducational group intervention’, Smith College Studies in Social Work, [online] vol. 68, pp. 287- 305, available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Brave Heart, M 1999a, ‘Gender differences in the historical grief response among the Lakota’, Journal of Health and Social Policy, vol. 10, pp. 1-21, available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Brave Heart, M 1999b, ‘Oyate Ptayela: rebuilding the Lakota Nation through addressing historical trauma among Lakota Parents’, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, vol. 2, pp. 109-126, available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Brave Heart, M & DeBruyn, L 1998, ‘The American Indian Holocasut: healing historical unresolved grief’, American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, vol. 8 pp. 60-82, available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Braveheart-Jordan, M & DeBruyn, L 1995, ‘So she may walk in balance: integrating the impact of historical trauma in the treatment of Native American Indian women’, in J Adleman & G Enquidanos (eds), Racism in the lives of women: testimony theory and guides to anti-racist practice, Haworth Press, New York, NY, pp. 345-368.
Bromberg, P 2006, Awakening the dreamer, Routledge, New York, NY.
Brothers, D 2008, Toward a psychology of uncertainty, Analytic Press, New York, NY.
Coles, P 2011, The uninvited guest from the unremembered past, Karnac Books, London, England.
Catell, RB 1966, Handbook of multivariate experimental psychology, R and McNally, Chicago, IL.
Chase, N 1999, Burdened children, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Chodoff, P 1970, ‘Depression and guilt among concentration camp survivors’, Existential Psychiatry, vol. 7, pp. 78-87.
Dyregrov, A (fetched 17 October 2014), ‘Family recovery from terror, grief and trauma’, available at:
Duran, E & Duran, B 1995, Native American postcolonial psychology. SUNY Press, Albany, NY.
Epstein, H 1979, Children of the Holocaust, Putnam, New York, NY.
Field, N. Muong, S & Sochanvimean, V 2013, ‘Parental styles in the intergenerational transmission of trauma stemming from the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, [online] vol. 83, no. 4, pp. 483-494. Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Fonagy, P, Gyorgy, G, Jurist EL & Target, M 2002, Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self, Other Press, New York, NY.
Freyberg, J 1980, ‘Difficulties in separation-individuation as experienced by offspring of Nazi Holocaust survivors’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 87-95, available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Grubrich-Simitis, I 1984, ‘From concretism to metaphor: thoughts on some theoretical and technical aspects of the psychoanalytical work with children of Holocaust survivors’. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vo. 39, p. 301ff.
Holmes, A 1988, The grieving Indian, Indian Life Books, Winnipeg, Canada.
Hoppe, KD 1962, ‘Persecution, depression, and aggression’, in H Krystal (ed), Massive psychic trauma, International Universities Press, New York, NY, pp. 204-208.
Hoppe, KD 1966, ‘Persecution, depression, and aggression: the psychodynamics of concentration camp victims’, Psychoanalytic Forum, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 76-85.
Hoppe KD 1971, ‘Chronic reactive aggression in survivors of severe persecution’, Comprehensive Psychiatry, vol. 12, pp. 230-235.
Jilek, WG 1981, ‘Anomic depression, alcoholism and a culture congenial Indian response’, Journal of Studies on Alcohol, vol. 9, pp. 159-170.
Kellerman, NPF (2001), ‘Psychopathology in children of Holocaust survivors: a review of the research literature’, Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 36-46.
Kestenberg, J 1972, ‘Psychoanalytic contributions to the problem of children of survivors from Nazi persecution’, Israel Annals of Psychiatry, vol. 10, pp. 311-325.
Kestenberg, J 1980, ‘Psychoanalysis of children of survivors from the Holocaust: case presentations and assessment’, in M Bergmann & M Jucovy (eds), Generations of Holocaust, Basic Books, New York, NY, pp. 137-158.
Kestenberg, J 1982, ‘A metapsychological assessment based on an analysis of a survivor’s child’, in M Bergmann & M Jucovy (eds), Generations of Holocaust, Basic Books, New York, NY, pp. 137-158.
Klein, H 1973, Children of the Holocaust: mourning and bereavement’, in EJ Anthony & C Koupernik (eds), The child and his family, Wiley, New York, NY, pp. 67-91.
Main, M & Hesse, E. 1990, ‘Parents’ unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganized attachment status: is frightened and/or frightening parental behaviour the linking mechanism?’, in M Greenberg, D Cicchetti & EM Cummings (eds), Attachment in the preschool years: theory, research, and intervention, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp. 161-184.
Memmott, P, Stacy, P, Chambers, C, & Keys, C. 2001, Violence in Indigenous communities, Canberra: Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department.
Mitscherlich, A & Mitscherlich, M 1975, The inability to mourn, Grove Press, New York, NY.
Mucci, C 2013, Beyond individual and collective trauma, Karnac Books, London, England.
Maruyama, G 1998, Basics of structural equation modelling, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Neiderland, WG 1968, ‘Clinical observations on the “Survivor Syndrome”‘, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 49, pp. 313-315.
Neiderland, WG 1981, ‘The survivor syndrome: further observations and dimensions’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, vol. 29, pp. 413-425.
Phillips, R 1978, ‘Impact of Nazi Holocaust on children of survivors’, American Journal of Psychotherapy, vol. 32, pp. 370-377.
Phipps, R & Degges-White, S 2014, ‘A new look at transgenerational trauma transmission: second-generation Latino immigrant youth. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, [online] vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 174-187, available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2014].
Prince, R 1985, ‘Second generation effects of historical trauma’ The Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 72, pp. 9-21.
Rose, S & Garske J 1987, ‘Family environment, adjustment and coping among children of Holocaust survivors: a comparative investigation’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, vol. pp. 332- 344.
Schick, M, Morina, N, Klaghofer, R, Schnyder, U & M�ller, J 2013, ‘Trauma, mental health, and intergenerational associations in Kosovar families 11 years after the war’, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, [online] vol. 4, no. 0, Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Schore, A 2011, The Science of The Art of Psychotherapy, WW Norton & Company Inc, New York, NY.
Sigal, JJ and Weinfeld, M 1989, Trauma and rebirth: intergenerational effects of the holocaust, Praeger Publishers, New York, NY. 1
Sigal, JJ, Silver, D, Rakoff, V & Ellin, B 1973, ‘Some second-generation effects of survival of the Nazi persecution’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, vol. 43, pp. 320-327.
Solkoff, N 1981, Children of survivors of the Holocaust: a critical review of the literature. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, vol. 51, pp. 29-41.
Song, S, Tol, W & de Jong, J 2014, ‘Indero: Intergenerational trauma and resilience between Burundian former child soldiers and their children’, Family Process, [online] vol. 53, no. 2, pp. 239-251. Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].
Sonneberg, S 1974, ‘Children of survivors’, Journal of the American Psychiatric Association, Vol. 22, pp. 200-204.
Steinberg, A 1989, ‘Holocaust survivors and their children: a review of the clinical literature’ in P Marcus & A Rosenberg (eds), Healing their wound: psychotherapy with Holocaust survivors and their families, Praeger Press, New York, NY, pp. 23-48.
Stolorow, RD 1987, Psychoanalytic treatment: an intersubjective approach, The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, NJ.
Stolorow, RD 2007, Trauma and human existence: autobiographical, psychoanalytic, and philosophical reflections, The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, NJ.
Townsley, HC & Goldstein, GS 1977, ‘One view of the etiology of depression in American Indian youth’, Public Health Reports, vol. 92, pp. 4458-4461.
Volkan, VD 2002, ‘The psychotherapeutic study group for people affected by the Holocaust: towards ending the “silence” in Germany’, in VD Volkan, VG Ast & W Greer (eds), The Third Reich in the unconscious (145-160), Brunner-Routledge, New York, NY.
Wheaton, B 1987, ‘Assessment of fit in overidentified models with latent variables’, Sociological Methods Research, vol. 16, pp. 118-154.
Whitbeck, LB, Adams, GW, Hoyt, DR & Chen, X 2004, ‘Conceptualizing and measuring historical trauma among American Indian people’, American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 33, no. 3-4, pp. 119-30.