Trauma usually refers to a moment or event that causes you distress. But, trauma can also come from someone else’s traumatic moment. Inherited trauma is referred to as generational or intergenerational trauma. I wrote a previous article on intergenerational trauma, so this article will focus on the signs that you or someone you know is passing on trauma to others.
According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event that produces shock, denial, or other reactions. We usually associate abuse, violence, or neglect as sources of trauma. But, trauma can happen because of an injury, a loss, or other events that can produce changes in your behavior and mood.
Hence, trauma is transferable. Because we all have experienced it at some point, we are all capable of unwittingly passing onto others our traumatic experiences. In the context of generational trauma, the psychological effects and behaviors caused by trauma are passed to the next generation.
Trauma is passed down via attachments, usually between parent and child. Although, in some cases, it can be passed down via epigenetics.
So, what are some signs that you or someone you know is passing down their trauma?
- Eschewing emotions
In a family setting, those who endured trauma may be hesitant to discuss their feelings. They may become emotionally numb or avoid talking about their emotions altogether.
Bessel Van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps Score,” said that ability to feel safe is “probably the most important aspect of mental health.” When we do not feel safe, we resort to defense mechanisms. And, emotional numbness is just that. It is a form of protection. I
Trauma can also cause people to avoid discussing their feelings because they may see it as a sign of weakness. They may see it as a weakness because they may believe that their vulnerability will be taken advantage of or abused, which can cause them more pain. So, in hiding their vulnerability, they make themselves less susceptible to pain. However, emotional numbness holds you back from living as a happy and healthy person.
- Lack of trust towards others.
Another sign that you may be passing on your trauma to others is having trust issues. It is normal not to trust those who hurt you but to withhold trust from those who have shown that you can trust them can mean that there is still some unresolved trauma.
This can show up in your relationships with friends, partners, or co-workers.
- Overly protective
A traumatic event usually elicits your fight or flight mechanism. However, the sense of anxiety or hyperarousal can persist even after the event has happened.
For families, parents who are survivors of trauma can exhibit anxious or overprotective behavior regarding their children even when there is no threat of danger.
- Unhealthy boundaries.
As a result, parents may exhibit a lack of respect for boundaries. They may get overly involved in their children’s or niece’s lives. In extreme cases, a parent may even feel as though their identity is tied to their children’s lives, which can place a strain on their relationship.
However, this point does not only apply to familial relationships. It can also apply to a romantic relationship. In a romantic relationship, you or your partner may feel that you are responsible for your partner. This can create a co-dependent relationship or cause strain on the relationship.
- Not asking for help.
One final sign that you may be dealing with unresolved trauma is not asking for help. This also points to a fear of being vulnerable. It’s a rational fear for a trauma survivor, but it is important to overcome.
When talking about intergenerational trauma, not asking for help is a learned unhealthy survival behavior. Because intergenerational trauma predominantly affects those from African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and Latino communities (Greenwell & Cosden, 2009; López et al., 2017; Pole et al., 2005)., it is not incorrect to infer that this learned behavior is a product of the trauma immigrants and marginalized people are subjected to (Dreyer, 2019). Because people from these communities are othered, there is a hesitancy to ask for help since the institutions that are suppose to help, historically have not helped them.
Intergenerational trauma begins with past generations, but it is up to the current generation to decide whether or not the cycle continues. If you experience trauma, please reach out to a therapist for help and guidance.
Boone, N. (2021, March 24). What is generational trauma and how can we heal from it? Ensemble Therapy. https://www.ensembletherapy.com/blog/what-is-generational-trauma.
Coyle, S. (2014, June). Intergenerational Trauma — Legacies of Loss. Social Work-today. https://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051214p18.shtml.
Ellis, S. (2020, January 7). What emotional numbness really feels like. Greatist. https://greatist.com/health/emotional-numbness.
GoodTherapy Editor Team. (2019, November 27). Signs you may have trust issues. How to Get Over Them in Relationships, Marriage, and Life. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/trust-issues.
Lachmann, S. (2017, April 10). When trauma affects your trust in your relationship. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/me-we/201704/when-trauma-affects-your-trust-in-your-relationship.
Sangalang, C. C., & Vang, C. (2017). Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Families: A Systematic Review. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 19(3), 745-754. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10903-016-0499-7