inherited family trauma

Healing from Intergenerational Trauma

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intergenerational trauma
Photo by Cheryl Winn-Boujnida on Unsplash

By Mayumi Elk Eagle, AMFT, APCC

Can you imagine how your ancestors lived throughout different times in history?

The United States consists of many races and ethnicities, each with unique experiences, perspectives, and reasons for being in America.
We are all intrinsically tied to our families and our society. Imagine the days when we didn’t have social media or even phones. Back then, leaving your home, traveling across oceans to a new land, either by choice or by force, often meant being cut off entirely from your original support system.

“Social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma” (Van del Kolk, 2014, p. 82). But, when people migrate to a different place, they lose the social support needed to overcome stressful times. When stressors are not handled and processed properly, they can become traumas.

Stories of Holocaust survivors revealed a phenomenon called “intergenerational traumatic transfer,” in which unresolved traumas from parents are passed onto their children who did not experience actual traumas (Cozolino, 2006, p.231). There is a reason for that. More research shows that “psychological trauma disrupts homeostasis and can cause both acute and chronic effect on many organs and biological systems” (Solomon and Heide; as cited in Carey, 2009, p.21).

When people are traumatized, it causes biological changes inside of their bodies, which often causes behavioral changes. Traumatized people pass down their trauma “along through their actions and reactions” (Cozolino, 2006, p.231) to people close to them. When caregivers act based on their reactions to trauma, even if it’s subtle, these actions affect a child’s brain development resulting in learning unhealthy ways of interacting with the outside world. Unhealthy reactions become normal reactions.

Suppose you want to understand your own inherited family trauma. In that case, you could try to trace back your ancestry to find out who went through a traumatic separation from their original society and support system.

Psychotherapy can help individuals and families heal from trauma through a variety of modalities. Finding and nurturing a trusted social system can also help support you through your healing journey.

“Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe” (Van del Kolk, 2014, p. 81). You can step out from your familiar reaction patterns and start learning how to heal and live a healthier life in your new support group or your new tribe.


Carey, L. (Ed.) (2009). Expressive and Creative Arts Methods for Trauma Survivors. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingley Publishers.

Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of Human Relationships. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Duran, E. & Duran, B. (1995). Native American Postcolonial Psychology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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