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Intergenerational trauma, the psychological and physiological impacts of trauma that are felt through multiple generations, is a substantial burden for many individuals and communities.
Intergenerational trauma can be experienced by anyone, regardless of their culture. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced and continue to experience intergenerational trauma and people from the Stolen Generations have been particularly vulnerable. The latter are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed as children from their families because of race-based policies by the Australian government. The Stolen Generations experience a range of issues, including poorer social and health outcomes.
To understand this troubling phenomenon, it is important to explore the lived experiences of people with intergenerational trauma, including the symptoms they may exhibit, and to identify resources to assist the healing process.
If you would like to gain culturally-aware skills to help individuals experiencing trauma, ECU’s accelerated and online Master of Counselling will help you achieve your goals. This postgraduate counselling degree is accredited by the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) and will develop your capacity to work with individuals and communities in a way that emphasises cultural awareness and trauma-informed practice through a person-centred approach.
Defining and understanding intergenerational trauma
Understanding intergenerational trauma can be complex. It is often difficult to diagnose and may be experienced at some stages of life and not others. Even though treatment may provide good outcomes, survivors of intergenerational trauma may continue to face challenges to improve their wellbeing.
How intergenerational trauma is passed on?
It is not clear how intergenerational trauma is transmitted. Some evidence suggests that such trauma may be epigenetic: trauma experienced by past generations may be expressed in their genes, leading them to be more likely to experience depression, anxiety and other mental health problems because of what happened to their ancestors.
Epigenetic trauma can occur because trauma leaves a chemical mark on an individual’s genes, which can alter the mechanism by which the gene is expressed.
Evidence also shows that intergenerational trauma can be transmitted as follows:
- Parents may continue to relive traumatic events and become emotionally detached or even experience dissociative episodes in which they’re unsure of their own reality. This detachment can prevent children from developing a sense of safety and predictability.
- Parents affected by trauma may not be best equipped to respond to normal instances of stress and pressure, so their children may not develop the ability to deal with stress.
- Parents who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not be able to model independence, self-soothing and emotional regulation. This may mean that their children can’t maintain a balanced perspective when challenges arise in their own lives.
Bearing witness to these behaviours or inheriting genes that may lend themselves to intergenerational trauma generally influences a person’s biopsychosocial wellbeing.
What types of trauma trigger intergenerational trauma?
Different types of traumas can trigger intergenerational trauma. These comprise:
- Substance abuse: A parent’s abuse of or addiction to alcohol or other drugs may cause intergenerational trauma epigenetically, or if the child witnesses the addiction.
- Child abuse: Emotional, physical or sexual abuse experienced as a child is traumatic. When abused children become parents, the impact of intergenerational trauma can cause them to behave in dissociative and unhealthy ways towards their children, triggering intergenerational trauma.
- Fleeing conflict: Any experience of war, persecution or displacement can trigger trauma, which a parent may re-live even years after the lived experience.
- Domestic violence: Any instance of domestic violence, whether financial, emotional, sexual, or physical, can deeply scar a parent and lead to many mental health issues, which in turn can affect children.
- Pregnancy-related stress: There is evidence to show that stress experienced by a mother with a child in-utero can alter a baby’s epigenetics, meaning they are more likely to experience mental health issues.
Intergenerational trauma and the Stolen Generations: A brief case study
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially individuals from the Stolen Generations, continue to experience intergenerational trauma. The effects are so profound that researchers and health professionals continue to work towards a better understanding of how intergenerational trauma impacts the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
A brief history of the Stolen Generations
The term “Stolen Generations” refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families and caregivers between 1910 and 1970 as a direct result of the Australian government’s policy of assimilation. Both government agencies and church missions were responsible for removing children.
The assimilation policy was based on the belief that white people, and the “white” way of living, was superior to that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and that “full-blood” First Nations peoples would eventually become extinct. The policy stated that children who had both First Nations and white parents should also be assimilated.
Under this policy, children were forcibly taken from their families, often violently. After being removed, they were forced to adopt white culture and forbidden to speak their traditional languages or to refer to themselves by their birth names. Many children were placed in institutions where abuse occurred regularly. Others were adopted by white families and used as slave labour.
The trauma experienced by these children and their birth families is abhorrent and undeniably had a significant impact on their wellbeing and the generations to follow; many were unable to recover and lead fulfilling lives.
The Stolen Generations: Current situation and issues
Although these policies ended over 50 years ago, and the Australian government has more recently acknowledged the significant trauma forced upon children removed from their family of origin under the National Redress Scheme, their impact is still felt by surviving members of the Stolen Generations, as well as their children and grandchildren. The separation of children from their families is felt across the entire community.
Children from the Stolen Generations, along with their parents and wider communities, continue to be burdened by the harm done to them under the assimilation policy. Some important and lasting implications follow:
- Interruption in knowledge transfer: In Indigenous cultures, knowledge transfer occurs regularly between generations, including oral histories. The transfer of deep cultural knowledge was disrupted when families were fragmented, disconnected and isolated.
- Abuse: Many children from the Stolen Generations experienced abuse while in state care. This included physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
- Cultural confusion and displaced sense of self: Children in the Stolen Generations were forced to reject their own culture; they could not connect with their families, history or heritage at later stages of their lives and were forced to adopt new and often troublesome identities.
- No healthy family situations: Because many children in the Stolen Generations were placed in state care or fostered to others, they did not experience a healthy family situation. This can lead to many mental health issues.
Symptoms of intergenerational trauma
Intergenerational trauma can impact a wide variety of people and communities.
Many and varied symptoms of intergenerational trauma exist, including the following:
- A lack of trust in others and an inability to connect with others and form meaningful relationships
- Anger and irritability; anger may be expressed as violence
- Physical symptoms such as chronic pain, heart disease and diabetes
- Nightmares and sleep difficulties
- Fearfulness, anxiety and hyper-vigilance
- Emotional numbness and depersonalisation
- A deep sense of shame and vulnerability
- Unresolved and complicated grief
- Isolation and withdrawal
- Memory loss
- Substance abuse
- Persistent feelings of hopelessness
- Recurring thoughts of death, dying or suicide
School-aged children may experience the following symptoms:
- Poor academic performance
- Poor attendance
- Drop out
- Issues with bullying or being bullied
- An inability to display respect towards teachers
- Violent or disruptive behaviour.
Some of the most common symptoms of intergenerational trauma are explained in more detail below.
Lack of trust in others
A parent who has experienced trauma may directly or indirectly develop a lack of trust in others. This may be displayed through dissociative or detached behaviours or isolation or withdrawal. The parent may also struggle to form meaningful relationships with others.
Children of parents who have experienced trauma often emulate this behaviour and approach relationships with the idea that they can’t trust others.
Anger is a common symptom of intergenerational trauma. Noteworthy is that the Stolen Generations experienced symptoms of anger almost universally and with good reason. Those who experience intergenerational trauma may direct their anger at those who abused their parents or past generations, or they may unintentionally direct it to people in their communities. Survivors of intergenerational trauma often can’t explain their anger, but they feel it strongly nonetheless.
Related to anger is irritability, another common symptom of intergenerational trauma. Irritability may be experienced daily by survivors of intergenerational trauma. Symptoms include an overarching feeling of frustration at their lives and circumstances and are often expressed in minor everyday activities.
A nightmare is a common symptom of intergenerational trauma that individuals may experience frequently or infrequently. Nightmares can be disturbing and can leave them feeling shaken and fearful. Fear of further nightmares may even lead to insomnia, causing further mental health challenges.
Intergenerational trauma can induce fearfulness, which may present as rational or irrational.
Rationally, those experiencing intergenerational trauma may be acutely aware of the trauma inflicted upon those in their lives and may be terrified that the same may happen to them. Irrational fears can manifest in just about anything and are often unexplainable, albeit very real to the person experiencing it.
Steps and resources for breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma
Intergenerational trauma can be emotionally and physically debilitating for individuals and communities. Understanding how to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma is thus critical.
Fortunately, people experiencing intergenerational trauma can access professional services and resources to start the healing process. Here are several ways survivors can work towards improving their wellbeing and those of the generations to follow:
- Be open about past trauma: By beginning conversations with family, friends and community members without being ashamed to admit that it happened and had an impact on them.
- Identify and discuss traumatic events: If it feels safe enough to do so (and preferably with professional trauma-informed support), pinpointing events and circumstances that caused trauma rather than relying on generalisations can be beneficial.
- Seek professional help: There are many professionals in the community that can support trauma survivors. It is important to find individuals and organisations who are trauma-informed for the best outcomes.
Types of intergenerational trauma therapy
The healing journey is different for all trauma survivors and treatment interventions should be tailored to suit the needs of the individual. Notwithstanding, below are some types of therapy that have been used to support people break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
Narrative exposure therapy
Narrative exposure therapy (NET) is a treatment model for individuals with complex or multiple traumatic experiences. NET is often used in a community or group setting and can help individuals contextualise a traumatic experience in a way that loosens its grip on their lives.
Intergenerational Trauma Treatment Model
The Intergenerational Trauma Treatment Model (ITTM) focuses on complex trauma for children and their parents. It is designed to treat unresolved trauma from a parent’s childhood before engaging a child in treatment. By treating two generations at once, the ITTM model can be particularly useful for intergenerational trauma.
This treatment model includes elements of trauma theory, attachment theory and cognitive behavioural techniques.
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) treats symptoms of trauma. It teaches children and their parents to better express themselves, cope better with life’s challenges and stresses and manage their behaviour positively.
It also teaches them to process their trauma and avoid mental health issues commonly associated with traumatic events.
Culturally mindful interventions
Culturally mindful interventions aren’t so much a form of treatment as an element that should be incorporated into any interactions with those experiencing intergenerational trauma. Trauma is experienced differently, and each culture has its challenges, so any treatment should be created through a lens of cultural competence and humility.
Resources for those experiencing intergenerational trauma
Intergenerational trauma is complex and the healing process can be complicated. The following resources can help individuals begin to heal from intergenerational trauma:
- The Healing Foundation: This foundation provides information and resources specifically for Indigenous Australians.
- Blue Knot Foundation: This resource provides information, helplines, workshops and more to support victims of complex trauma.
- Choosing Therapy: This resource provides in-depth information about intergenerational trauma and the types of therapy that can be used to assist with healing.
- Beyond Blue: These general resources assist Australians with various mental health challenges.
Intergenerational trauma: A journey
Intergenerational trauma is complex and challenging. Those who experience intergenerational trauma may have many and varied symptoms, persisting over their lifetime. Healing isn’t a fast or easy process.
However, for those traumatised, there’s hope. By recognising the symptoms, taking steps to address them, learning how to heal and seeking professional help, those experiencing intergenerational trauma can experience improved wellbeing and lead more fulfilling lives.
If you want to gain the skills required to make a difference and help those experiencing intergenerational trauma, ECU’s Online Master of Counselling will empower you to promote a positive sense of identity, culture and heritage. Reach out to our Student Enrolment Advisors via phone on 1300 707 760, or email email@example.com to learn more.
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