In years of research on child maltreatment (emotional, physical and sexual abuse, neglect), we have learned a very powerful lesson. Trauma can have a multigenerational impact that creates risks across generations. In this blog, we will explore some ways that trauma impacts families over decades and generations.
To get started, I would like to share how I came to be interested in this topic myself, and why it has continued to captivate me for 20+ years. The first may be because I am biased toward family, having had a family that was deeply connected across generations and generational stories that shaped family myth and lore, but also drove very real family patterns. Think everything from the benign - ways traditions are celebrated - to the more substantive what is ‘ok or not ok’ to talk about out loud.
Really, though, family began to truly fascinate me when I began working with children who had experienced sexual abuse. As part of this work, of course, there was a major family component. I noticed a pattern quickly. Many of the parents were single women, most of them had experienced sexual abuse themselves, most of them said very openly that they had never wanted their children to go through what they went through. I still recall the situation that really cemented my need to better understand this phenomenon. Sitting with a mother, we had completed a genogram or kind of family tree to help us understand their family dynamics more. We agreed to also lay over sexual abuse experiences onto the tree. Soon, we could see for ourselves how abuse experiences wove their way across four generations, and we could talk about how that abuse impacted the family. When her mother joined the conversation, we were confronted with three living generations who had experienced sexual abuse, and the painful reality that there were things in the family that created risks for abuse, despite each woman wanting to protect her children from what she had been through.
We cannot lapse into blame or over-simplistic thinking that the women talking with me just didn’t ‘want’ to protect their children badly enough. Or that they were careless, selfish, or stupid. This type of victim-blaming propels the contexts in which abuse thrives.
So, what happened to these women and their children? How did maltreatment find its way in when these moms knew, firsthand, how hard abuse is? There are no easy answers; however, there are ways of thinking about factors that can contribute to risks across generations:
The first is that the effects of abuse create risk for more ‘abuse promoting contexts.’ For example, childhood sexual abuse increases the likelihood of early initiation of sexual activity, substance use disorder, teen pregnancy, poor educational outcomes including school dropout, poverty, medical problems, and a range of behavioral health concerns. These factors all make a person more vulnerable to unhealthy relationships and make it more difficult to leave abusive relationships. They also create significantly more emotional, physical, and financial stress for families -- across multiple generations. These are further compounded in communities dealing with systemic poverty, racism, and oppression.
To put this in a real situation, consider a little girl who experienced abuse, and who then became sexually active and pregnant at 14 with a boyfriend who was 35. He provided both financial stability and what she defined as love, and her parents did not object. In many ways, this relationship, however, was another experience of abuse, with a significant gap in knowledge, power and resources. It took her many years to see those dynamics and she did not leave due to the financial needs of her family. Having experienced significant age gaps in her own relationships, she did not realize the risks to her daughter when her daughter began spending time alone with those significantly older, but this type of access to children can be taken advantage of by individuals who are abusive.
In yet another situation, a single mom, who had children since her teens and dealt with poverty and depression, felt no one would ever want her and that she could not have a real relationship. She was swept off her feet by a man who wanted to spend time with her children, took them all to the movies, helped the kids with their homework, and created more stability. She fell deeper in love and did not recognize that her children were being easily accessed by someone abusive.
The second factor is that relationship patterns are learned early, and they are hard to change, even when we try. We all have these patterns and can see them in ways we do things, since part of what we learn in our relationships even shapes our personalities. Do we trust others? Seek comfort when we are injured or seek distance? Do we have a hard time being alone, or prefer to keep people at arm’s length? Can we convey our wants and needs in a relationship? Set boundaries? How do we define our worth in relationships? These patterns are found within families and are largely shared through parenting practices.
In many ways, this helps explains why individuals repeatedly find themselves in unhealthy relationships. You’ll note that I didn’t say ‘choose’ as we don’t want to promote the idea of ‘why didn’t she know better?’ or ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ The bottom line is that we all fall into relationship patterns that are comfortable to us, even if some of them are not healthy, and many times we do not recognize what is happening until we experience the negative consequences. Even then, we may not be able to see it objectively, let alone have the resources we might need to change it.
Consider this scenario. A little girl reports sexual abuse to her mother, who tells her that it must have happened because she was ‘bad.’ As a teen, she is told she ‘shouldn’t have been there in the first place.’ In these pivotal experiences, she is growing to believe that she cannot trust her family to protect her, and she feels vulnerable. Yet, she learns that she can feel some control when she experiences herself as ‘sexy’ and she is drawn to a man who says he will ‘protect her’. Later, when he becomes physically abusive to her, she seeks advice from her pastor, who tells her that she should not make him so angry, and she resolves to be a better wife. After a few years, she learns he has been sexually abusing both of their young children. In this case, engagement with child protective services may help her learn about herself, her experiences, and how to help her family be safer.
Finally, generational trauma lives in our bodies and minds. You read that right. There are tangible physiological and psychological changes. We are impacted by the trauma of our parents, when we didn’t live through it ourselves, with the largest studies substantiating this are in families that experienced the holocaust or who have experienced systemic racism. When we say ‘trauma changes us’ – do we consider that this means over decades?
Do we also consider that well established impacts of trauma shape family functioning across generations? Things like poverty, low educational attainment, difficulty with employment, major medical concerns, behavioral health and substance use disorders? Each of these, in their own rights, change families.
The last thing this blog should do is promote toxic myths that there is a ‘cycle’ of abuse. That is untrue. Most people who experience maltreatment do not harm their children. At the same time, there is a significantly greater risk for maltreatment when parents have themselves been maltreated. Family patterns are a real thing, because family connections are a real thing.
When we are helping those impacted by trauma, it is short sighted to work without considering family (however the individual defines it) since trauma impacts relationships as well as the family environments that shape, strain, and support the relationships.
To me, however, the biggest implication here is prevention. We know the damage adverse childhood experiences can create, and we know that family history factors can predict risk for adverse childhood experiences. So many of the women I have known in practice have shared with me, “I never wanted them to go through it, too.” I can’t help but wonder what would happen if women were asked about childhood experiences during prenatal visits. If we offered, “There could be some challenges for you and your child. Would you be interested in talking with someone about how you can help your child from going through this too?” What could happen? How many women could be given information to change their lives, and the lives of generations to come?
Qualitative study of holocaust survivors and their children: Braga, L. L., Mello, M. F., & Fiks, J. P. (2012). Transgenerational transmission of trauma and resilience: a qualitative study with Brazilian offspring of Holocaust survivors. BMC psychiatry, 12, 134. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-134.
Introductory information on intergenerational impacts of trauma, including physiological. Portney, C. (2003). Intergenerational transmission of trauma: a introduction for the clinician. Psychiatric Times, 20(4).
Administration for Children and Families description of ‘historical trauma’ and family impacts of trauma.
A clinician describes her experiences with intergenerational trauma. Coyle, S. (2014). Intergenerational trauma — Legacies of loss. Social Work Today, 14(3), 18.
Summary document from the Child Welfare Gateway. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Intergenerational patterns of child maltreatment: What the evidence shows. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
Trauma Informed Care: Perspectives and Resources including several on generational impacts and resilience.
More reading on systems approaches to intergenerational maltreatment patterns