Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Generational trauma: Uncovering and interrupting the cycle

By Bethany Bray January 25, 2023

A young Black child sitting on a couch with her mother and father. The mother has her arm on the child's shoulder. A person sit across from them taking notes.

Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.com

Ashlei Petion, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, noticed a common pattern in the counseling work she did with adolescents during her master’s internship. Her young clients would often talk in sessions about challenges and friction at home, but whenever Petion looped the clients’ parents into the discussion, they said they were simply parenting their child in the same ways their own parents had done with them.

Petion said she heard this over and over, and it made her realize that the challenges that her adolescent clients were facing were “bigger than the client who was sitting in front of me,” she says. “It’s part of their entire family and, in turn, their culture.”

This experience as a master’s intern sparked Petion’s interest in researching generational trauma, which eventually led to her doctoral dissertation and area of specialty as a counselor.

Generational trauma is complex, but counselors must remember that it doesn’t mean that there is “something inherently wrong with an individual [client],” Petion stresses. “It’s a collection of traumas that have been experienced by their ancestors, passed down, and it’s affecting them to this day. They are battling something bigger than them[selves].”

Taking a broader view of trauma

A common — and perhaps deserved — critique of the definition of trauma traditionally held by mental health practitioners and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is that it is too narrow and doesn’t acknowledge the many different types of trauma, says Rachael Goodman, an LPC and associate professor at George Mason University whose area of specialty is trauma.

Counselors and society at large, including clients, may conceptualize trauma as the result of a single event or events that an individual has experienced personally. Trauma, however, can take many forms; it can be ongoing, vicarious, complex, generational and systemic, notes Goodman, the academic program co-coordinator and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) liaison for the counseling program at George Mason University.

Because of this narrow definition, other types of trauma, including generational trauma, can be overlooked and outside the awareness of both clients and counselors, especially during the client assessment, diagnosis and treatment planning process, Goodman says. Also complicating the issue is the disparity that exists for clients from minoritized cultures, who are more likely to experience generational trauma based on systemic oppression and related issues, she adds.

For some clients and counselors, societal oppression and historical/cultural erasure may keep them from linking presenting issues, such as trouble in relationships or problematic coping, to challenges or trauma that clients haven’t experienced themselves, but which affects their family and community, Goodman notes. Counselors’ role “is to bring that [trauma] into consciousness and work with the client to address it,” she says. “It can be very powerful for the client to have their experience acknowledged and framed as a ‘legitimate’ source of trauma, when often systemic or ‘nontraditional’ forms of trauma are ignored or excluded from mainstream assessment and practice.”

“Clients often report that it feels like [a weight] sitting on their shoulders,” Petion agrees, “and they feel like they need to interrupt this and not pass it on.”

Like Goodman, Petion feels there is sometimes a knowledge gap among counselors regarding generational trauma. There’s just no way a counseling program can cover everything fully, including the complexities of trauma, in a two-year master’s program, she says. In addition, many of the textbooks and materials counselor education programs use to teach students about trauma have a Western viewpoint and do not cover historical and generational trauma, she adds.

This means that it’s essential for counselors to seek out additional training and information on generational trauma and best practices for treating it if it’s coming up within their client population, stresses Petion, a member of the American Counseling Association and co-author of the recent Journal of Counseling & Development article, “‘Battling something bigger than me’: A phenomenological investigation of generational trauma in African American women.”

Petion admits that it can be hard for those who haven’t experienced generational trauma to grasp just how challenging it can be to live with — or overcome — this type of trauma. “Changing just ourselves [in counseling] is really difficult, but then adding in other people and your whole family — it’s really difficult to ignite change,” she says, “but we know it’s possible.”

Identifying generational trauma

The first step to identify generational trauma is to ask the client to talk about their family history, including their relationship dynamics and how their family interacts with each other and the world around them, says Jordan Mike, an urgent care counselor at the counseling center at Vanderbilt University who is working on earning a professional counselor license in Tennessee. However, the most important thing a counselor can do during this process is to simply sit with and support them and “truly listen” as the client tells their story, he notes.

Generational trauma is an area of research for Mike, a third-year doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision at the University of Florida, but it’s also something he personally witnessed growing up as a Black man. He says he also sees its effects in the concerns of the students, faculty and staff he counsels at Vanderbilt.

It can be an aha moment when a client realizes that an issue they are struggling with is actually something all of their family has suffered with as well, Mike says. And now as counseling becomes more available and accepted, he hears more clients are saying, “Hey, this is not a ‘me’ issue; it’s something that has been trending in my family for decades and hasn’t been addressed or helped.”

Clients who are affected by generational trauma may exhibit some of the same behaviors and symptoms as people who have experienced a traumatic event directly, including strong emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety, notes Mike, an ACA member. Fear, including irrational fears, and distrust are common emotions among clients who are affected by generational trauma, he notes, particularly intense fear, anxiety, avoidance or distrust of places, communities, situations or systems that they’ve never experienced or have been to or through themselves.

The crux is to uncover where these feelings originate; if it’s something that they’ve internalized from their family or community, then it can indicate they have generational trauma that needs to be addressed, Mike says. For example, a client who expresses fear or distrust of law enforcement or medical care may not have a personal experience that prompts that fear. When asked where they think the fear originates, they may answer, “I’m not sure but this is what I’ve always heard; this is what my parents say and my community says,” he explains.

Desiree Guyton, an LPC with a private practice in New Jersey, says that generational trauma can also cause clients to harbor feelings of shame and negative self-worth. She guides these clients to talk about their family of origin, and where their feelings of shame might have originated. Clients who are affected by generational trauma often find that they stem from cultural messages they have internalized, Guyton says.

Generational trauma can also become apparent if a client talks about what isn’t addressed, acknowledged, processed or talked about in their family, culture or community, Mike adds. Cultures of silence are often adopted as a protective or coping measure, he says, but this can also mean that “there are so many things that can go untalked about, unsolved and unresolved.”

Because this trauma often goes unacknowledged, coupled with the fact that clients may struggle to pinpoint or name their generational trauma, Mike finds that it can be helpful to prompt clients to think of major events in their family or community, including things that were “hard to get through,” such as violence or loss, in addition to asking about family dynamics. He often asks clients, “What are some things that you have come together for as a community or family?” or “What is something that left a lasting impression?”

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that delving into a client’s family dynamics and history, including the use of timeline exploration activities and genograms, is helpful to uncover and distinguish clients’ generational trauma from other trauma experiences or mental health challenges.

Goodman developed a genogram tool that counselors can use to screen for intergenerational trauma in clients, which she wrote about in an article published in Counselling Psychology Quarterly in 2013. It can be particularly helpful for clients to write out aspects of their history or express them visually (e.g., making a collage out of images) to help them “get it out of their head,” look at it, and find patterns of trauma as well as resilience and persistence, she says.

Go slow

Guyton and Goodman both stress that counseling work with clients who have been affected by generational trauma needs to be client led and only go as far and as deep as the client is comfortable.

“Give the client time to build trust with you. They may not be willing to share and talk about [this topic] right off the bat. They may need you to demonstrate that you are someone who can be trusted, someone who will believe them,” says Goodman, an ACA member and representative on the ACA Governing Council.

Goodman notes that some clients may want to do a deep dive into processing the historical origins of their trauma while others may simply want to acknowledge it and focus on other work, such as learning coping tools for everyday life. For some, healing and meaning making can also involve engaging in social action, supporting their own family members or embracing a helping role within their community, she adds.

“The goal is for our clients to be able to live the life they want to live,” Goodman continues. “It’s not up to me to tell them they have to revisit their entire family history. … I’m interested in finding out what ‘living a meaningful life’ means for each client and helping them get there.”

Similarly, Guyton, an ACA member and co-author of the workbook Healing the Wounds of Generational Trauma: The Black and White American Experience, has had clients who traveled to speak with extended family members to learn more about the trauma, context and life stories of their ancestors, whereas others are not comfortable doing so. She herself has found it healing to trace her own family history to its enslavement and connection to the descent of slave owners.

Counselors must also be sensitive to the ways generational trauma can dovetail with systemic issues such as racial trauma and oppression. For example, a counselor can help a Black client who is activated by news coverage, such as when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, to process how they feel — including grief and loss — and how it connects to their trauma history, Guyton says.

“Not all grief is traumatic, but all trauma has some feelings of loss,” she adds.

Guyton, who also leads groups and does trainings on racial conflict, trauma and healing through the nonprofit Quest Trauma Healing Institute in partnership with Trauma Healing Institute, advises counselors to listen when clients talk about their family unit or abuse history “because for people of color there is often more to it,” she says. “There is usually a connection to what it is to be an American and how they feel as an American.” Also, the field of epigenetics, she adds, teaches us that the historical trauma reactions can be passed down to next generations.

Counselors may also need to work on multiple challenges with these clients at once, Guyton says. “For those whose [generational trauma] comes out in session, we need to take it very slow, because often they are struggling with another presenting issue or other trauma. Once it surfaces, I focus on it as much as the client leads and wait until they’re ready to process it. I want to also be sensitive to the other types of trauma” they’re dealing with, she explains.

Both/and approach

Guyton has developed an approach that uses a combination of cognitive behavior therapy, narrative therapy, genogram and some guided imagery work to help clients identify the generational trauma being passed down to them and gain the skills to interrupt transmission to the next generation. She also starts by offering psychoeducation on trauma (and generational trauma) and asks questions about how and where the client may be experiencing the effects of trauma physically in their body.

Goodman agrees that counselors may need to vary their counseling approaches to address the interrelated concerns and challenges these clients are facing. She encourages counselors to take a “both/and” approach to address clients’ immediate needs (i.e., coping mechanisms to calm down when activated or social services to address stressors of daily living) as well as deeper work to address their trauma from a culturally sensitive, intersectional perspective.

“There are a lot of different ways of approaching this, but I tend to believe that ‘one size fits all’ is not going to do it,” says Goodman, a past president of Counselors for Social Justice, an ACA division. “Instead, [counselors should] think broadly of a both/and intersectional model that addresses the underlying and systemic causes of trauma.”

Goodman has past experience doing community engagement and support work on a Native American reservation. Some parents that she worked with often expressed feeling like they did not have enough tools or knowledge on how to parent, which placed stress and strain on family relationships, she recalls. Some of these parents had been removed from their family home as children and sent to boarding schools where they experienced trauma, so they never had the experience of growing up in a supportive, loving family. The situation left many of the parents with intense feelings of shame, fear and generational trauma, Goodman says.

In turn, these parents and their children were living with generational trauma as they struggled to maintain family bonds, she adds.

She found that these parents wanted to learn parenting skills in counseling to meet their immediate needs and support their children, but they also needed deeper work to process the trauma of their experience at boarding school, where they weren’t allowed to speak their native language or wear their native dress and, in some cases, suffered abuse.

In addition to cultural sensitivity, Goodman urges counselors to keep a focus on hope with clients who are living with generational trauma. At intake, explore not only their trauma history and challenges but also their strengths, resources and things that give them hope, she advises.

“Hope and having connection [in relationships] is so important” for these clients, Goodman stresses. “These problems are huge and have huge impacts, so helping our clients persist in spite of these barriers is really important.”

Supporting clients

Counseling to help clients acknowledge and unpack their generational trauma must be culturally sensitive and tailored to each client’s different combination of needs. The counselors interviewed for this article offer the following insights to support clients in this process.

The miracle question. Mike finds that it can be helpful to start discussions by prompting clients to consider the “miracle question” and imagine or visualize a world where their challenge or problem (in this case, generational trauma) is completely removed. He suggests asking the client, “What would it be like if you didn’t hold on to these feelings, or this pressure wasn’t there?” to spark thought and discussion about the big picture and larger issues connected to their challenges.

A client, for example, may be the first person in their family to attend college and feel intense pressure about choosing the “right” major. Mike says he would support the client in their decision-making process and help them gain perspective and clarity by asking, “What would be different for you if everyone in your family had gone to college or if there was no pressure and you could do whatever you want?”

“This [miracle question] gives them permission to not have to consider all the things that weigh on them, for once,” he explains.

Communication and boundary setting. Petion led a support group for Black women who had experienced generational trauma as part of the research for her doctoral dissertation. One of the things the group members found helpful, she recalls, was building communication and boundary-setting skills that they could use with their family members. The group talked a lot about how to remain calm, manage their body language and keep a problem-solving (rather than blaming) focus when having “brave dialogues” with family members about behaviors and patterns that had been adopted because of generational trauma, she says.

Petion also equipped them with ways to use “I” statements to voice their feelings. Instead of saying, “You really hurt me when you did this” to a family member, a client could say “I was really hurt when you did this” or “I felt this way,” she says. The purpose of shifting from “you” language to “I” language is to minimize or eliminate feelings the other person may have of being attacked or blamed, Petion explains. “I statements help us to take accountability for our own actions and feelings, speaking for ourselves instead of projecting onto the other person,” she says.

One group member grew up with a mother who didn’t believe children should express their feelings, Petion recalls. Having her feelings dismissed throughout her entire childhood was chronically traumatic for her. In group, this participant was able to practice having an assertive yet productive conversation with her mother to explain that she was using a different method to parent her own child because she had been hurt by her mother’s approach during her childhood, Petion says.

Guided imagery techniques. When a client is processing their generational trauma, guided imagery, including the “empty chair” technique from the Gestalt method, can be a way to ask questions and speak to family members or ancestors who are no longer alive, Guyton says. This technique was beneficial for one of Guyton’s clients who described “harsh” treatment by her grandmother growing up, and now as an adult, she was struggling with feelings of shame and negative self-worth, poor choices of intimate male partners and parenting stressors. This client’s desire not to pass on her trauma reactions to her children, as well as her anxiety about being poor and abusive, is what led her to seek counseling, Guyton adds.

When the client began to explore her family history, including the pressures her grandmother faced as she emigrated from her Caribbean homeland to the United States, she realized “I need to talk to her,” Guyton recalls. (The client had recently traveled to her grandmother’s home island and spoken to extended relatives to learn more about her grandmother’s life story and context.)

Guyton used guided imagery with this client and began by asking her to picture her grandmother and describe what she was seeing. Guyton then prompted the client to talk to her grandmother and share how she was feeling. The client responded by saying, “I see you, Grandma. I see you in this context. I’m understanding more now, and I wonder what it was like for you to raise all of us through poverty, sexism, racism and physical abuse. I want to know what it was like.”

These types of conversations can help a client process their connections to trauma and find closure. For this client, “being able to close her eyes, breathe, remember and picture her [grandmother] in a different way” and think of her difficulties in context moved her toward forgiveness and healing, Guyton says.

Case management. Counselors sometimes shy away from conversations or tasks that feel like case management, such as helping a client enroll their child in school or navigate the bus system to commute to work, Goodman notes. However, this type of support can be particularly helpful and needed by clients who are affected by generational trauma, especially those with refugee or immigrant experiences, she says.

“You may get pushback from a supervisor because it’s outside of counseling,” Goodman says, “but what I’ve found is that these experiences are really important.”

Do your own work. Processing a clients’ generational trauma in counseling involves inviting them to talk about their experience, but the onus should never be on the client to teach the counselor about their culture and history, Goodman stresses. It’s vital for counselors to seek out consultation with peers or do research on best practices to treat a client who comes from a specific community or cultural group, she says. There are treatment methods that are tailored to meet the specific needs and trauma experiences of different cultures and that use culture-centered, decolonial and liberatory approaches, she notes. Counselors just need to seek them out.

Similarly, practitioners must do their own work to become comfortable broaching the subject and discussing cultural issues and generational trauma with clients who come from different — and possibly less privileged — backgrounds than their own, Goodman continues. She encourages counselors to gently name any differences that exist in the counseling room, using questions such as “When counselors and clients are different in their identities, it can be helpful to name that and to think through how we might work together. Since we have some differences in our identities, what challenges might we have in working together?”

Goodman urges counselors to broach this subject not only at the start of counseling work with a client but also with regular check-ins throughout the relationship. “We [counselors] each have to figure out for ourselves language that is genuine for us” to foster these conversations, she says. And counselors need to “be willing to say, ‘I’m hearing some hesitancy, and I wonder if you have any concerns about talking to me about this.’”

Don’t make assumptions. Counselors should be listening for the signs of generational trauma in each client, regardless of their cultural background, Petion adds. “Privileged groups can still have generational trauma, even though it’s not talked about as much,” she says. “Anyone who has experienced trauma can pass it down. … Don’t make assumptions. This affects us all in some way, shape or form.”

Healing in connection

In her book All About Love: New Visions, the late bell hooks wrote, “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.”

Petion says she shares this quote often when talking about generational trauma with clients and colleagues. The truth is that clients do not live in a vacuum; they can work toward healing individually in counseling but will ultimately return to live within their culture and family system, she notes.

“Generational trauma is just that — an individual whose trauma is perpetuated within family and culture,” Petion adds. So, with this client population, practitioners must “think beyond the individual sitting in front of us” in counseling, she stresses, and focus on how they are healing in connection to their family and community. “That’s really where we interrupt the transmission of trauma,” she says.

At the same time, counselors should remember that it may not be the client’s role to “fix” or heal their family or community, Mike cautions. “They may need to make peace with healing themselves without taking on entire systems,” he says.

Generational trauma “can be a biological thing, an emotional thing, a social thing. … Trauma changes our chemistry; it can change how we interact with other people, … who we are and even our gene expressions,” Petion says. But “counseling offers the space to relearn that [and] a space where clients are heard and validated.”

 


Bethany Bray is a former senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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