Can Trauma Be Inherited?

Trigger warning. This article discusses strong themes such as trauma and violence. Please take care of yourself first and skip this article if necessary.

Some of our past articles have focused on how trauma affects an individual. But, this article will focus on how it can affect a collective. 

Trauma refers to distressing experiences which produce fear, helplessness, or other disruptive emotions. These emotions have long-lasting negative repercussions. But, they are not the only circumstances that can produce trauma. Migration can also be a traumatic event. 

The ordeals endured throughout migration harm those who immigrate and their descendants. 

Intergenerational trauma refers to the total emotional and psychological wounding transmitted from one generation to the next (Dass-Brailsford, 2007; Rakoff et al., 1966). Though it is a topic seldom discussed, intergenerational trauma affects many. It affects children of immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and children of historically oppressed peoples. 

Initial forays into the field involved studying children of Holocaust survivors. The studies found that many of them presented symptoms of trauma similar to their parents. (Rakoff et al., 1966; Rosenheck & Nathan, 1985; Sigal & Weinfeld, 1989). Many showed high incidences of PTSDsecondary traumatic stress, depression, anxiety disorders, and lower general positive mood. Additionally, many offspring of Holocaust survivors felt a greater sense of responsibility for their parent’s feelings. Unfortunately, many of them were more likely to experience emotional abuse and neglect. Despite the plethora of studies pointing to the transmission of trauma, there were mixed results. 

A study published in 2011 found that the examined group of Holocaust survivor’s descendants showed no psychopathological differences from other participants. (Friedman et al., 2011) Another study revealed no signs of traumatic stress among children of Holocaust survivors (Sagi-Schwartz., 2003). Despite the inconclusive data regarding this particular group, one thing is clear– the descendant’s psychopathological symptoms correlate with their parent’s experience. Meaning, those who had intense and first-hand experience of distressing events, such as war and violence, were more likely to pass down their trauma. 

Researchers found similar results among children of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian immigrants. A study focused on trauma among Southeast Asian college students found that their perception of their parent’s trauma was directly affected their sense of coherence or logic between independent beliefs. 

A 2011 paper published in the Child Adolescent Psychiatry Mental Health journal by Vaage et. al found that of the families they studied, thirty percent of the families had one parent with a high psychological distress score. Among those families, four percent had children who are considered probable causes– likely to develop psychological distress disorders, such as PTSD. Conclusion? Although the fact of being a child of a refugee is not considered a risk for a mental health problem, having a parent with PTSD can put them at risk. 

So, how does trauma get passed on?

Transgenerational trauma– or intergenerational trauma– gets transmitted through parenting and family relationships. The standard that measures familial relations focuses on the way parents discuss their experience, how they communicate with their children, whether they can provide a sense of stability and security for their children, and if they show resilience after the event. 

Although these definitions are vague, they aim to establish what kind of environment the child grows up in. The most common vehicles of transmission care parenting behavior and epigenetics

Epigenetics refers to the possible heritable changes in the genome caused by environmental factors. A 2013 review by Leen-Feldner et al. among parents with PTSD revealed that parent’s symptoms of PTSD caused their children’s mental health problems, such as general behavioral issues and altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning. 

Trauma changes parenting behavior and causes a parent to pass down fear-based survival messages, such as “Don’t ask others for help.” Though these ideas were, at some point, necessary for survival, they no longer apply to the survivor’s descendants. Parenting behaviors can change in other ways that can cause child neglect, maltreatment, co-dependent attachment, or parentification. 

Lin et al. delved into how Cambodian refugee families communicated and found that silence and avoidance from the survivors affected their children’s sense of belonging into a community. This process of biological embedding– where descendants pass on their socially learned parenting behaviors– continues from generation to generation. 

Though prior research attributed trauma and transgenerational trauma to a specific event, such as war or war-related violence, recent studies have expanded the scope to include historically oppressed communities. Oppression, racial violence, and discrimination are all factors that produce trauma among African-American, Asian-American, Indigenous, and refugee communities. Research shows how systemic violence ripples and affects subsequent generations (Brave Heart, 2000).

Such events also affect the children of Latinx immigrants. Though the era of imperialism and colonization has gone, its effects linger. 

The countries in Central and Latin America have had a turbulent history. Their history is marred by colonialism, racial power structures, and oppression. Unfortunately, South America’s turbulent history has been exacerbated by politics. Throughout the 20th century, there have been numerous changes in regimes, uprisings, wars, and violence that have forced many to leave their homes. As a result, approximately 75% of migrants from Latin America report histories of trauma (Fortuna et al., 2008; Keller et al., 2017).  

Unfortunately, the threats they face do not end once they leave. They face threats throughout their immigration journey and, sometimes, even after they have settled. The constant barrage of social, political, and economic threats makes this group particularly vulnerable. 

Research from 2019 and 2020 points to the inherent trauma incurred upon immigration. Not only is the ordeal itself traumatic, but also the effects afterward. Loss is a common shared experience, acculturative stress, precarity caused by legal status, discrimination, and anti-immigrant policies all contribute to the trauma of immigration (Dreyer, 2019).  

The cumulative trauma experienced by immigrants gets transmitted to their children. Research shows that Latinx youths are more likely to experience PTSD than their American peers (Greenwell & Cosden, 2009; López et al., 2017; Pole et al., 2005). 

Unfortunately, due to the lack of research and structural support for this community, more research needs to be done on how intergenerational trauma functions and is treated within the Latinx community. 

However, do not let these facts deter you. Seek help from a licensed medical professional whom you feel you can trust. Though trauma can be passed on, it is not genetically inherited. Transgenerational trauma can be unlearned. 


Barlow, J.N. (2018). Restoring Optimal Black Mental Health and Reversing Intergenerational Trauma in an Era of Black Lives Matter. Biography 41(4), 895-908.  doi:10.1353/bio.2018.0084.

Curry, A. (2019, July 18). Parents’ emotional trauma may change their children’s biology. Studies in mice show how. Science. 

Dashorst, P., Mooren, T. M., Kleber, R. J., de Jong, P. J., & Huntjens, R. (2019). Intergenerational consequences of the Holocaust on offspring mental health: a systematic review of associated factors and mechanisms. European journal of psychotraumatology10(1), 1654065.

DeAngelis, T. (2019, February). The legacy of trauma. Monitor on Psychology. 

Kellermann N. P. (2001). Perceived parental rearing behavior in children of Holocaust survivors. The Israel journal of psychiatry and related sciences38(1), 58–68.

Leen-Feldner, E. W., Feldner, M. T., Knapp, A., Bunaciu, L., Blumenthal, H., & Amstadter, A. B. (2013). Offspring psychological and biological correlates of parental posttraumatic stress: review of the literature and research agenda. Clinical psychology review33(8), 1106–1133.

Meekyung Han PhD (2006) Relationship Among Perceived Parental Trauma, Parental Attachment, and Sense of Coherence in Southeast Asian American College Students, Journal of Family Social Work, 9:2, 25-45, DOI: 10.1300/J039v09n02_02

Park, M., & Katsiaficas, C. (2019, April). Mitigating the Effects of Trauma among Young Children of Immigrants and Refugees. Migration Policy Institute. 

Sangalang, C. C., & Vang, C. (2017). Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Families: A Systematic Review. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health19(3), 745-754.

van IJzendoorn, M. H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Sagi-Schwartz, A. (2003). Are children of Holocaust survivors less well-adapted? A meta-analytic investigation of secondary traumatization. Journal of traumatic stress16(5), 459–469.

Yehuda, R., & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA)17(3), 243–257.

Yehuda, R., Bell, A., Bierer, L. M., & Schmeidler, J. (2008). Maternal, not paternal, PTSD is related to increased risk for PTSD in offspring of Holocaust survivors. Journal of psychiatric research42(13), 1104–1111.

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