Breaking the Cycle – Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma is “transmitted through attachment relationships where the parent has experienced relational trauma and have significant impacts upon individuals across the lifespan, including predisposition to further trauma” (Isobel, S., Goodyear, M., Furness, T., & Foster, K., 2019). Fortunately, the understanding of this method of the transmission of trauma is now becoming more widespread and given a more serious focus than in the past. It is described by Van der Kolk that the ability to feel safe with others is “probably the most important aspect of mental health” (2015, p.81). But what if those who you are supposed to feel safe with, your own family, are the ones causing said source of suffering and are inhibiting your capability of feeling safe with and trusting in others? In a film created by The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, the contributors comment that within society, it is very common to come across children who are victims of abuse, who’s parents were also victims of abuse, who had parents that were victims of abuse, and so on. They mention that usually shoulders are shrugged, and the topic of conversations moves on but that “is what keeps the cycle going” (The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation, 2007).

In addition to PTSD, other forms of adverse childhood experiences, that come from a variety of other mental health disorders, can be considered intergenerational trauma. For example, if a parent is more preoccupied with trauma they’ve faced or are suffering from, they may not be emotionally stable or consistent in providing the proper upbringing of a child. Our emotional development starts from the day that we are born and our ability to form attachments to others is also key to feeling safe and therefore being attuned to other people. Disorganized attachment is understood as “not knowing who is safe or whom they belong to, they may be intensely affectionate with strangers or may trust nobody” (Van der Kolk, 2015, p.119). Through research, it becomes more and more apparent that there is “an intergenerational component, and the more we can work on it and stop it at its root and prevent it, the better it is for all who are suffering and also for society” (The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation, 2007).

Treatment for breaking this cycle can be as simple as educating the public to understand the way that their trauma, past or present, effects their families but also ranging from the training being available to front line professionals to help them whilst dealing with traumatized members of the community. If a Child Protective worker understands that when dealing with a distressed mother that has a more severely stressed baby, research shows it is more efficient to calm the distressed mother first to have a more soothing effect on the baby, they can therefore have a more active role in stopping the trauma from continuing (The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation, 2007).

More formally, it is purposed to utilize the family systems approach to dealing with and preventing intergenerational trauma. In Module 4, Professor Danielle Rousseau explains a form of family systems therapy – Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS). In this form of therapy, the focus is on the Self. IFS was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz when he realized that there were significant connections that his clients made between external family systems and internal self-talk. He “began to identify specific “parts” of the self, and determined that they all had value, and could learn to work together rather than against each other” (Rousseau, 2019). Additionally, within the family systems approach therapists are able to redirect and help heal pain from intergenerational trauma by utilizing 4 strategies: use of culture informed treatment, interruption of unhealthy family communication patterns, giving trauma a voice within the family, and helping parents offer children the permission to dissociate (Sells, 2018). When the combination of knowledge, education, training, and various forms of treatment are used, it feels as though the progression towards breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma is well underway.

Isobel, S., Goodyear, M., Furness, T., & Foster, K. (2019, January 1). Preventing intergenerational trauma transmission: A critical interpretive synthesis. Journal of Clinical Nursing.

Rousseau, D. (2019). Module 4 – Pathways to recovery: Understanding approaches to trauma treatment – Lesson 8.

Sells, S. (2018, October 12). A family systems approach to treating intergenerational trauma. Retrieved from

The international society for the study of trauma and dissociation (Producer). Fran Waters (Executive Producer). (2007). Trauma & Dissociation in Children I: Behavioral Impacts [Video file].: Cavalcade Productions. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from Kanopy.

Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin.

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