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Intergenerational Trauma and the Promise of Healing (


Intergenerational trauma

Trauma occurs when a person suffers intense emotional pain or a threat to their life or sense of safety to such an extent that it overwhelms their ability to cope. We often think of trauma as occurring from catastrophic or violent events. But researchers have found that daily accumulations of stress, like repeated experiences of racism, can result in traumatic symptoms that are detrimental to one’s physical, mental, and emotional health.

In the past 10 years, a number of studies have shown that trauma is passed down generationally through both interpersonal interactions between parent and child as well as through the genes of traumatized parents. We’ve known for some time that if a child is raised by parents or caregivers with high rates of what is known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, the child is likely to also experience greater adversity. But more recently, scientists have discovered genetic links between parents, both mothers and fathers, who were traumatized and their children.


Epigenetics is the term used to describe the altering of one’s DNA due to environmental effects. As a teenager in the 90s, I recall teachers talking about the nature versus nurture debate, the question of how much of who we are today is shaped by our nature, the genes which we inherit, or the environments in which we were nurtured. Studies in epigenetics have shown that there is a complex interaction between our DNA and the way the environment around us can either activate some genes or suppress others. Researchers have discovered that these altered genes can be passed on to one’s children through the genetic code of both the father and mother through sperm and in the uterus.

Dr. Yehuda and other scholars stress that we need to view both epigenetics and intergenerational trauma as adaptive. Furthermore, we inherit not just trauma symptoms from our parents and perhaps grandparents, but our resilience is also passed down through stories, through examples of fortitude, and quite possibly through our genes. We now know that genetic changes due to adversity are reversible. The past is not always prologue.

To read more of Eric M, Brown Ph.D.'s article, please click here.

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