Home Psychology Kids, Families and Trauma: Issues, Influence and Generational Flow

Kids, Families and Trauma: Issues, Influence and Generational Flow

by Dr. Barry Lord, Psy.D

Kids, Families and Trauma: Issues, Influence and Generational Flow

Trauma is an emotional response to an event that a person finds highly stressful, like an accident, rape or natural disaster. In the worse cases it seems to linger in the persons psyche. 

  • Shock and denial are typical responses to the trauma which may have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. 
  • They could include flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. 
  • Trauma can change families as they work to survive and adapt to their circumstances and environment.
  •  Research demonstrates that trauma has a range of impacts on individual family members, their relationships with each other, and overall family functioning. 

Trauma has particularly debilitating long-term effects on children’s developing brains.  

  • Experts are learning more about who is vulnerable to it, and how it manifests in families and communities. 
  • In this course we will discuss some of the issues involved with trauma and how it affects the entire family with an emphasis on childhood trauma. Trauma isn’t just experienced by one person but extends from one generation to the next.
  • Many things get passed down through families, like heirlooms, genetic conditions, and physical characteristics. In some cases, personal phobia and even trauma can be passed on also. 

Childhood Trauma

What Is a Traumatic Event?

  • A traumatic event can be experienced as a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or body. Witnessing a traumatic event that threatens life or physical security of a family member can also be traumatic. 
  • This is particularly important for young children as their sense of safety depends on the perceived safety of their parent figures. (Care givers)
  • Traumatic experiences bring about strong emotions and physical reactions that can continue long after the event. Children might experience terror or fear helplessness, as well as bodily reactions such as heart pounding, vomiting, or loss of bowel or bladder control. 
  • Children who experience an inability to protect themselves or who lacked protection from others may also feel overwhelmed by the intensity of physical and emotional responses.
  • Usually, adults work hard to keep children safe from danger, but dangerous events still happen. This danger might come from a natural disaster, car accident, school shooting, family or community violence, serious accident, or the unexpected death of a loved one.
  • As a result, children may show signs of child traumatic stress.

Impact of Child Traumatic Stress?

  • Children who suffer from child traumatic stress are those who have been exposed to one or more traumas over the course of their lives and develop reactions that persist and affect their daily lives after the events have ended. 
  • According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, traumatic reactions to stress could include
    •  Intense and ongoing emotional upset, 
    • depressive symptoms or anxiety,
    •  behavioral changes,
    •  difficulties with self-regulation, 
    • problems relating to others or forming attachments, 
    • regression or loss of previously acquired skills, 
    • attention and academic difficulties, 
    • nightmares, difficulty sleeping and eating, and physical symptoms, such as aches and pains. 
  • Older children may use drugs or alcohol, behave in risky ways, or engage in unhealthy sexual activity.
  • These types of symptoms may occur when the child is reminded in some way of the traumatic event. 
  • When a child is experiencing traumatic stress, these reactions interfere with the child’s daily life and ability to function and interact with others.

In one nationally representative sample of young people ages 12 to 17:

  • 8% reported a lifetime prevalence of sexual assault
  • 17% reported physical assault
  • 39% reported witnessing violence (SAMHSA)

By the age of 16 years, more than two thirds of children will have experienced exposure to at least one traumatic event.

Also, many reported experiencing multiple and repeated traumatic events.

Not all young people exposed to such events will develop significant psychological problems. Many young people will recover with the help of good family and social support, but between 10-30% of young people may go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another mental health problem.

  • At no age are children immune to the effects of traumatic experiences. Even infants and toddlers can experience traumatic stress.
  •  The way that traumatic stress manifests will vary from child to child and will depend on the child’s age and developmental level.
  • Without treatment, repeated childhood exposure to traumatic events can affect the brain and nervous system and increase health-risk behaviors (e.g., smoking, eating disorders, substance use, and high-risk activities). 
  • Research shows that child trauma survivors can be more likely to have long-term health problems (e.g., diabetes and heart disease) or to die at an earlier age. 
  • Traumatic stress can also lead to increased use of health and mental health services and increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
  •  It is important to learn how traumatic events affect children. The more you know, the more you will understand the reasons for certain behaviors and emotions and be better prepared to help children and their families cope. 

How do children survive and thrive after a traumatic event?

Children do not always develop traumatic stress when experiencing a traumatic event, but those who do can recover. With proper support, many children are able to adapt to and overcome such experiences.

In their article on child trauma, SAMHSA states as a family member or other caring adult, you can play an important role. Remember to:

  • Assure the child that he or she is safe and that the traumatic event is over. Talk about the measures you are taking to get the child help and keep him or her safe at home and school.
  • Keep to old routines, as much as possible.
  • Explain to the child that he or she is not responsible for what happened. Children often blame themselves for events, even those events that are completely out of their control.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to talk about what happened how they are feeling – but only if they want to.
  • Encourager them to play, draw or use other creative activities to help express themselves.
  • Be patient. There is no correct timetable for healing. Some children will recover quickly. Others recover more slowly. Try to be supportive and reassure the child that he or she does not need to feel guilty or bad about any feelings or thoughts.

Professional help

  • If you have concerns about your child’s recovery, the first thing you should do is sit down and talk to them about how they are feeling. Encourage them to talk openly about how they have been feeling since the trauma. Try to get an idea about any worries they may have or difficulties they are experiencing. 
  • Provide comfort and support and let them know that lots of people struggle with unwanted thoughts, feelings and memories after a traumatic event. But also let them know that there is help available. 
  • Take your child along to your GP and have them speak to the GP about what is troubling them. If your GP is concerned that your child may be suffering from PTSD or another trauma-related problem, he or she can arrange for a referral to a child and adolescent counsellor who specializes in helping children who have been affected by a traumatic event.

What is generational trauma?

Science tells us that certain traits are most definitely attributed to genetic causes. Our eye color, skin pigmentation, and certain diseases like Tay-Sachs or Huntingdon’s chorea are all direct results of the genes we inherit from our parents. Other traits to which we can be genetically predisposed include weight, height, life expectancy, hair loss, and vulnerability to certain illnesses (McLeod 2007). 

  • Our genes play an important role in our health, but so do our behaviors and environment. Scientists have observed that trauma experienced by previous generations can effect the behaviors in current generations.
  • Epigenetics is the study of how our behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence.
  • Epigenetics takes a look at inter-generational trauma. This traumatic event, that began decades prior to the current generation, impacts the way that individuals understand, cope with, and heal from trauma.

Inter-generational trauma is a concept developed to help explain years of generational challenges within families.

  • It is the transmission (or sending down to younger generations) of the oppressive or traumatic effects of a historical event. 
  • For example, a great grandmother who was placed in a concentration camp in Germany may have learned to cope by “cutting off” her emotions. Because of this, this grandmother may interact with her family in an emotionally distant fashion. That relationship may be tumultuous to say the least.
  • The transmission of the historical trauma may begin to negatively affect her grandchildren and her grandchildren’s children, etc., leading to generations of emotional distance, defensive behaviors around expression of emotions, and denial.

Case Study

Dr. Charles Portney cites an example of generational trauma in which a 20-year-old male was being treated for bulimia, depression and several anxiety disorders. He denied a history of trauma. 

  • “As therapy progressed, he mentioned that his paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors who were very involved in his upbringing.
  • They were loving and overprotective but also very anxious and highly critical. 
  • Therapy clarified that the criticism was in the service of trying to make everything perfect to avoid some new, unspecified catastrophe.
  •  The patient’s bulimia was an attempt to have a perfect body and, therefore, avoid bad things.
  •  When seen in family therapy, the patient’s father clearly had second-generation problems and accepted a referral for therapy. The father’s treatment greatly aided the patient, as his father could now model for him how to navigate through life’s shoals in a calm, reasonable manner. 
  • Individual therapy, antidepressant treatment and the father’s improvement resulted in almost complete recovery.” (2003)

What is the potential immediate impact of generational trauma and long-term impact?

In the words of Tamara Hill, there are a few ways that inter-generational trauma negatively impacts families:

  1. Generations may struggle with emotions: As noted above, older generations often set the stage (knowingly or unknowingly) for how emotions within the family are dealt with. Do you hide your emotions and act as if nothing is happening? Do you internalize your emotions until something triggers them to come spilling out? Or does your family drink and/or use drugs to cope with the pain? Whatever way the trauma is dealt with, older generations within a family set the stage for how traumatic events should be (and often are) coped with. Sadly, the trauma continues throughout generations because those who needed help, never received it. In other cases, the family member who is traumatized may even transfer negative emotions on to others within the family such as children or other family members.
  2. Trauma can limit the parent-child relationship: Parents who have not received help or support for their trauma can develop unhealthy relationships with their child or grandchild. An unhealthy relationship may be characterized by emotional, psychological, or verbal abuse. In serious cases, the abuse may be sexual or physical. Family members who sexually or physically abuses their child may scare them into not telling anyone or asking for help. 
  3. Unresolved psychiatric problems can lead to relational turmoil: It is a known fact that older generations do not believe in pursuing the help of mental health professionals. The attitude is often, “I can heal myself.” Some people go so far as to say “they don’t know me, I know myself better. I can help myself.” Family members who are struggling with mental health conditions (depression, anxiety, psychotic symptoms, etc.) truly need help because unresolved psychiatric symptoms can lead to further trauma and emotional turmoil within one’s family. 
  4. Borderline” behaviors may develop in younger generations: One of the presuming ideas around borderline personality (BPD) disorder is that invalidating environments (environments where one’s emotions were minimized or ignored), are often present in families of inter-generational trauma,  which may lead to the developing symptoms of BPD and ultimately failed familial and social relationships. Because of the trauma of an older relative, the younger generation may experience emotional and psychological abuse which can result in feeling invalidated. These repeated feelings can then lead to emotions that lead to BPD-like symptoms. 
  5. Younger generations may develop a “content” attitude with how things are: As noted above, older generations set the stage for how things within a family are addressed. If ignoring and minimizing (and even accepting) the trauma is “normal” for the family, younger generations will adapt to this way of “survival” and mimic the behaviors for generations to come. Individuals who ignore or minimize and deny family trauma are only making matters worse for younger family members. Much of how we cope with traumatic experience is learned. (Hill, 2018)

What can we do to stop generational trauma from continuing?

In the words of Bessel Van der Kolk (who wrote “The Body Keeps the Score”), the ability to feel safe is “probably the most important aspect of mental health”.  This is physical and emotional safety. To heal from the effects of generational stress, you and your family may need to see a therapist.

Recent scientific advances in the study of epigenetics and psychology show more and more clearly how traumatic experiences shape the lives of not only the people who experience them but also their children and children’s children.


Gillespie, Claire. (2020, October 27,). What Is generational trauma? Here’s how experts explain it. Health. https://www.health.com/condition/ptsd/generational-trauma

Hill, Tamara. (2018, June 6). Inter-generational trauma: 6 ways it affects Families. Duke, Office for Institutional Equity. https://psychcentral.com/blog/caregivers/2018/06/inter-generational-trauma-6-ways-it-affects-families#1

McLeod, S. A. (2018, December 20). Nature vs nurture in psychology. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/naturevsnurture.html

McLeod, S.A. “Nature vs. nurture in psychology.” (2007). Simply Psychology. Simple Psychology.  

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). About trauma. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma

Phoenix Australia. (2013). Helping my children after trauma, A guide for parents. https://www.phoenixaustralia.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Phoenix-Parents-Guide.pdf

Portney, Charles. (2003, April 1) “Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: An Introduction for the Clinician”. Psychiatric Times. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/intergenerational-transmission-trauma-introduction-clinician

Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2020, April, 20). “Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress.” https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/recognizing-and-treating-child-traumatic-stress

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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