Many things are passed down from one generation to the next. You could have an heirloom that’s been in your family for multiple generations, or you could have inherited your grandmother’s eyes. But traits and memorabilia aren’t the only things passed down through the generations. Generational Trauma refers to the impact that trauma in one generation can have on the generations that come after it.
The term “generational trauma” has been used frequently in the media lately. We often hear this term when discussing medical conditions that are more prevalent in communities of colour due to trauma from past generations. However, generational trauma can impact anyone in a variety of ways.
It’s hard to define generational trauma as it can present in various ways. For example, a new generation could be impacted by the trauma experienced by the generation before them through the parenting styles of the adults who experienced the trauma. We see this in the case of Inuit, First Nations, and Metis youth impacted by the residential schools in Canada despite not having attended a physical school themselves. The traumas experienced by the parents and grandparents directly impact today’s school-aged children. You may have heard this referred to as Intergenerational Trauma, another term for generational trauma or transgenerational trauma.
Generational trauma can also come from further down the family line, where the generation experiencing the impacts of the original trauma never actually meet those who experienced it. For instance, this could be the lasting impact of a horrific event on a great-grandparent. The new generation may not directly interact with the survivor, but the effects of the trauma are still felt. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors experience more significant psychiatric distress even though they did not personally experience the Holocaust, nor did their parents. Generational trauma is passed down through DNA at a cellular level. The study of genetics is called Epigenetics. Scientists who specialize in this field say that the trauma and stress experienced by parents and grandparents alter the genetics of future generations.
Generational trauma leaves lasting impacts on the DNA of future generations. A study of worms even found that trauma lasted in the DNA for over ten generations. What do these effects look like?
Ultimately, trauma and stress increase the stress hormones, such as cortisol, in our bodies and cause us to exist in a prolonged state of fight, flight or freeze. This constant state of stress impacts our mental and physical health. Generational trauma can look like increased rates of anxiety and depression or even an increased rate of type 2 diabetes. Triggers can cause stressful reactions, and the individual experiencing the trigger may not even know why it’s upsetting or frightening to them because it’s coded into their DNA.
I recently wrote in Drishti Magazine that I believe my father’s experience with trauma during the partition of Punjab has affected my own genetic disorder and chronic pain.
We’re all experiencing a state of prolonged stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we experience another wave thanks to the Omicron variant, we worry about the impact on our youth. Children are living through a global pandemic and experiencing it firsthand. Due to the new variant, they’re experiencing school closures and uncertainty, mask mandates, racial prejudice, hospitalization, and even death. It’s safe to say that this prolonged state of stress will have a lasting impact on how our society functions. However, how much of an effect it has on the genetic DNA of future generations is up to us.
Many parents and grandparents are wondering how to help children cope. We need to find ways to help today’s youth manage the stress of this pandemic as it will impact future generations to come.
Try these tips to reduce stress in your life and the life of the children around you:
Be kind to others. Show compassion towards others to reduce stress in public places and social gatherings.
Be kind to yourself. Model self-care to your children. Take time to eat healthily, practise mindfulness and journaling, get enough sleep, talk about your feelings, and exercise. All these things may seem simple and trivial at first, but they genuinely help reduce the stress hormones in our bodies and help our children learn valuable coping skills.
Stay connected. We may be distancing and avoiding groups right now, but staying connected is important. Maintaining connection with loved ones helps boost our mood and happiness and improve the emotional health and wellbeing of others. Opt for walks or video chats instead of social media feeds. On the topic of connection, make sure you stay up to date on the latest news and think critically about your information sources. Set up time limits on how much news you take in per day to avoid burnout or overwhelm. There’s a happy medium for staying connected and informed. Too little, and you can worry you’re unaware of restrictions or start believing sources that aren’t credible. However, too much overwhelms your stress response, and you can find yourself in a pandemic panic.
If you’re struggling with the stress of the pandemic and want help, or you’re worried about your kids and would like additional support, I’m always here to help. Reach out and connect with me for clinical help. Additionally, pick up a copy of The Dolphin Parent or The Tech Solution to get valuable insight on how to help your child navigate stress and build resiliency in the modern world.