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A cultural framework for generational trauma

By Jyotsana Sharma, Carolyn Shivers and Cadence Bolinger June 20, 2023

A father hugs his son while standing outside. Both are looking down.

Ruslana lurchenko/Shutterstock.com

Intergenerational trauma, much like the definition of trauma, is often subjective and complex. Trauma can be broadly defined as an event or recurring event that can overwhelm the body and its ability to cope in a variety of different ways. Based on an individual’s capacity, trauma may be met by resilience or growth with the help of positive support systems and adaptive coping mechanisms, or it may overwhelm the survivor’s mind and body and lead to traumatic stress reactions or other debilitating effects. The traumatic experience may then directly or indirectly impact descendants, resulting in intergenerational trauma or the transmission of trauma between generations. Because intergenerational trauma, like all experiences, is highly subjective, each person may experience it differently. In this article, we define intergenerational trauma as any traumatic experiences survived or actions perpetrated on communities or individuals that contribute to enduring biopsychosocial changes, including adverse repercussions for survivors or abusers, and direct, indirect or vicarious implications for their children and grandchildren, both within a culture and across cultures.

Intergenerational trauma is often understood in the context of historical or cultural violence. Children and grandchildren of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Native American and First Nation survivors of residential schools, and other survivors of ethnic genocide have described feelings of unease, anxiety and fear, despite having never directly experienced a traumatic event themselves. In many cases, traumatic experiences were never shared with these descendants, and it is only through exploration of their ancestors’ lives that these individuals could begin to understand and start working through their own struggles.

More recently, clinicians and researchers have recognized that individual traumas such as interpersonal violence (IPV), domestic violence, sexual violence, emotional abuse/neglect or deprivation can also contribute to the intergenerational transmission of trauma. In other words, trauma does not have to be experienced at a community level to affect later generations. Any individual trauma can disrupt a generational system in ways that travel through time.

Although research and practice acknowledge the variety of possible events that lead to intergenerational trauma, there are few theories on how such trauma is transmitted. Some modern studies have found genetic underpinnings of trauma (i.e., transmission through changes in the genetic code of survivors who experienced the trauma). However, as with most psychological phenomena, it is equally important to consider the role of nurture. It is possible that trauma survivors may consciously or unconsciously develop behaviors and reactions that transfer fear, avoidance, anxiety or hopelessness to their offspring, thus unintentionally passing on distorted core beliefs, values, thought processes or emotions.

Although intergenerational trauma may affect many of our clients, it often goes unnoticed. In addition, the complexity of generational trauma is difficult to assess, so we developed a framework — the cultural framework of generational trauma (CFGT) — to help support practitioners when working with complex, intergenerational traumatic experiences. The framework can be used in a culturally diverse society, and it can be adapted to all individuals, regardless of the nature and origin of the traumatic events.

A bioecological approach

As counselors, we need to broaden the way we view trauma, especially trauma that emerges from experiences of interpersonal violence, and consider how it can affect multiple generations and, most importantly, how these processes may differ across social and cultural realms. To do this, we propose counselors use a targeted bioecological framework when addressing the impact of social and cultural contexts on the experience of individual trauma(s), especially as it relates to the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Mental health practitioners can adapt this macro approach to understand clients’ worldviews and the implications that the intersections of the individual, the trauma, and the social and cultural contexts might have on advertently or inadvertently transmitting patterns of trauma intergenerationally.

The CFGT integrates the Bowen family systems theory, Yael Danieli’s Trauma and the Continuity of Self: A Multidimensional, Multidisciplinary, Integrative (TCMI) framework and Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model. The CFGT uses the macro lens of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model, which helps us understand the multiple layers of disruption that trauma causes and the capacity of this disruption to travel across generations within family systems through a set of complex interconnected processes. In our framework, trauma and violence exist not only within the individual or between the person who carried out the abuse and the survivor but also within surrounding familial, social and cultural contexts. For example, our framework includes children who have witnessed abuse toward someone else, been on the receiving end of the abuse, or been manipulated or used as a means for carrying out violence or abuse.

The Bowen family systems theory helps us understand interpersonal dynamics within family systems, and the TCMI helps explain how trauma and violence cause ruptures that travel from the survivor to their social and cultural contexts and vice versa. It’s important to note that the influence between survivors and sociocultural systems is reciprocal, which can lead to various trajectories of traumatic stressors, recovery or growth.

The CFGT consists of the following four components, which we adapted from Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model:

Person. Our framework is centered on the victimized individual or survivor who is in conflict internally or with another individual. The individual’s unique worldview has been influenced by their genetics, family, and social, political and cultural contexts. Any trauma the individual faces has the capacity to transform the entire family system, starting with the individual and rippling out toward the family system and components of that individual’s sociocultural contexts.

Context. The individual affected by trauma or violence is surrounded by social, political, economic and cultural contexts, which form their environment. They are also influenced by various systems in their environment such as family members, friends, colleagues, community, religious organizations, neighborhood, society (e.g., U.S. society, Midwestern society), socioeconomic status, political trends and culture as it relates to race, ethnicity and country of origin, as well as the beliefs and biases held by the survivor and individuals in each system. These systems influence the survivor and are influenced by the survivor. By specifying multiple aspects of the environment, our framework helps encourage counselors to explicitly consider spheres of influence that might be affecting the individual’s trauma and vice versa. For example, if there has been a pattern of triangulation in a client’s family system, then maybe the client and counselor need to explore how triangulation has carried across the generations and whether it plays a role in their current family life.

Process. Most of the disruption happens within the family (chosen or otherwise) because it is the closest system to the individual. Family members who try to help or support the person affected by trauma or violence are often also affected themselves. Similar processes could then exist for traumatic transfer to other members of the survivor’s environment. If a child survivor, for example, shares their trauma with a school counselor, then that counselor may now be affected by the trauma vicariously. Religious/spiritual leaders who provide support or guidance to the survivor and family and law enforcement officials who are called to assist during or after a trauma or violence occurs can also be influenced by the survivor and the survivor’s family unit.

In addition, with the passage of time, the survivor may experience healing, which can also transfer to others and lead to healing within the family and the social and cultural context surrounding the survivor. But if healing does not occur or it does not fully occur, the patterns of coping, the altered values or beliefs, and the ways in which the survivor or the family unit has changed can transition from the survivor’s generation to the next. Bowen family systems theory refers to this process as multigenerational transmission and defines it as a process through which behaviors, attitudes, skills, values, ideas or assumptions directly or indirectly transfer from one generation to the next via patterns of coping.

Drawing on Bowen’s concept of family projection, which refers to how parental figures transmit or project their own personal anxieties or interpersonal relationship issues onto the children within that family system, it is possible that the survivor’s generation transfers biopsychosocial patterns (e.g., fears, anxieties, defensiveness, depression, relational dissatisfaction, unhealthy coping after trauma or violence). Survivors may also transfer patterns of being or existing or even meaning making onto descendant generations.

Time. Like Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem, our framework includes the factor of time — both throughout an individual’s life span and across generations. We propose that the factor of time be considered not only continuous but also repetitive: Processes, interactions and complex intersectionalities occur in small yet recurring ways. With the passage of time, efforts toward recovery or growth might result in healing for the survivor and their social and cultural contexts. On the other hand, if the survivor struggles with traumatic stressors, there is also the possibility that these patterns of trauma or violence will influence, transition or transfer to another generation by seeping into the life of this survivor’s descendants.

Once the descendant’s biopsychosocial patterns are disrupted, that adverse experience becomes an essential part of the child’s lived experiences. Therefore, this aspect of time represents multiple ways in which experiences of trauma and violence repeat over the course of several lifetimes through social interactions, genetics, behavioral patterns, values or attitudes, sneaking from one generation to the next like a soul wound without the survivor’s or their descendants’ awareness.

Applying the framework

One advantage of our cultural framework is that it can be used across generations (i.e., for the survivors of trauma and violence and for the survivor’s descendants or extended families). A key element of the CFGT is the passage of time, which is important with intergenerational trauma. To illustrate how our framework could be used with a survivor and someone in later generations affected by their parents’ trauma experiences, we apply the CFGT framework to a case example; the data for the case study came from the first author’s dissertation study, which used semi-structured interviews to examine the impact of culture on trauma recovery and posttraumatic growth among survivors of IPV. Our survivor, JJ (pseudonym), was a 40-year-old Mexican woman who had experienced IPV between the ages of 30 and 37.

Person. JJ was married to her abuser, who exhibited escalating patterns of emotional abuse such as manipulation, isolation, gaslighting and physical violence (including shoving, hitting and choking).

Context. JJ’s abuse included intersectional social, political, cultural, economic and community factors, all of which contributed to her experience of IPV and attempts to seek support. JJ described her upbringing as a Mexican woman and discussed how divorce was frowned upon for women in her culture. Although her mother was a divorced, single parent, her grandmother, who also lived with them, was very traditional.

The community where her abuser forced her to move after marriage was isolating for JJ. She felt alone because she didn’t know anyone in this place, and her friends and support system were all back in the city that she had left. JJ’s then husband was gaslighting her and isolated her from her church community in an attempt to manipulate her and reduce her credibility. For example, after JJ suffered injuries from physical abuse, he would refuse to take her to church; instead, he would go by himself and tell the church community that she was struggling with mental health issues, which was not true. This facilitated even more isolation for JJ because now the church community not only thought she was unwell but also didn’t believe her when she told them about the abuse. She also described how police officers did not believe her when she reported the abuse. According to her, the officers sided with her husband, who was manipulative but maintained positive social relationships with the officers.

JJ also reported that social influences played a role in both preventing and encouraging her to leave her abuser. Some of JJ’s neighbors encouraged her to pray and work to “be a better wife” because JJ’s husband had again manipulated the narrative of the abuse and told them she was struggling with her home life and kids, but the neighbors didn’t realize the full extent of what was happening. But she also had friends from before her marriage who, after learning about the abuse, encouraged her to seek individual counseling. After JJ decided to leave her husband and move to a domestic violence shelter in another town, her friends supported her through the process of establishing an independent life for herself and her children.

Process. JJ experienced domestic violence for more than seven years, and the abuse escalated over time. Her abuser was not physically violent with her at the beginning of their relationship. JJ described how the emotional and psychological abuse began shortly after they got engaged, and her spouse became increasingly controlling when she was pregnant — putting her on a diet and demanding that he attend all her medical appointments. The spouse’s need for control was a common theme throughout the process and affected her socially and financially. His controlling nature was the underlying reason behind their move to a small town where JJ was cut off from all cultural and social support. Her spouse would prevent her from talking to anyone he believed was “on her side.” He also sold her car and took control of the finances, which limited her freedom and increased her dependence on him.

The CFGT allows counselors to see how the process of interpersonal violence is deeply embedded within the sociocultural context in which the violent relationship exists and how it can change and evolve over time. In JJ’s case, the contexts she was in at various times both perpetuated the violence (e.g., law enforcement officers refusing to believe her) and helped her escape (e.g., finding social support and legal assistance at a domestic violence shelter a few miles away from where she lived). Because the CFGT explicitly incorporates change over time throughout the entire framework, it allows counselors and clients to work through the complexity of the process as it exists within a person’s sociocultural context and vice versa.

Time. The time aspect of JJ’s case is particularly illustrative because she described both how her ancestors’ experiences affected her (looking backward) and how she could see her own experiences affecting her children (looking forward). JJ’s mother was divorced, and JJ recognized the stigma her mother faced as a divorcee in Mexican culture. This stigma influenced JJ’s opinion of her own marriage and contributed to a cultural pressure to “find a man” and stay married no matter what, which was largely influenced by her grandmother’s views on marriage.

JJ also described how her son received a temporary detention order in school when he was 5 because of behavior problems stemming from his mother’s abuse by his father and subsequent divorce. JJ and her abuser shared custody of their children, which resulted in her abuser trying to triangulate the children against JJ. He was also physically abusive toward the children.  Although JJ did not fully describe how much her children knew about her abuse, she said that the children did witness some of the violence directed toward her and they were also victimized by the father. Using the CFGT can help counselors understand the intergenerational impact of JJ’s trauma, independent of and in conjunction with the children’s own trauma.

Time also shaped and changed the context of JJ’s story. When JJ was living in a small, isolated community where people knew and believed only what JJ’s abuser was telling them, she was stuck. Moving to the domestic violence shelter, however, allowed her to find support from people in this new community and from friends she had known before the marriage. In the CFGT framework, time applies to both influences across generations and changes across time for an individual during their lifetime and journey toward recovery.

Conclusion

JJ’s story is particularly apt because she worked for years with a team of counselors (both her own and her children’s), attorneys, support staff and friends to free herself from her abusive relationship. She eventually established her independence, gained custody of her children, provided them with a safe environment and worked on her own trauma recovery. Through counseling and the recognition of her experience (person), the influences of her environment and culture (context), and the impact of both the past and future on the experience (time and process), JJ was able to develop strength, resilience, self-acceptance and confidence and grow from her experiences.

I (Jyotsana) met JJ while conducting interviews for a research study. One of my fondest memories of her was when she was in her art studio on a video call with me. After she shared her story with me, I asked her, “How are you going to move forward from here?” She spun her camera across the room and said, “Just for starters … I’m in my studio … my own studio.”

In cases such as JJ’s, the CFGT could help provide mental health professionals with insight into key psychoeducational interventions, advocacy related to policy changes, and social justice-focused approaches for survivors of trauma and violence and those affected by generational trauma. The CFGT may provide the groundwork on which holistic treatment modalities can be developed or formulated. We believe the CFGT is a comprehensive and culturally sensitive approach, and we are confident that focused research efforts will be able to provide evidence that this framework is a useful foundation for the treatment of clients affected by trauma and violence.

It’s also important to highlight that, like trauma, recovery and growth can also transfer from one generation to the next. Recent research on protective factors has acknowledged the potential for healing to be transferred through generations just as trauma from adverse experiences can be. Now it is up to counselors to be open-minded and adopt the CFGT as a holistic framework for education, research and practice. We are confident that by adopting this framework, mental health professionals can better assess, conceptualize and treat clients who display patterns of unresolved generational trauma.

 


Jyotsana Sharma is an assistant professor in the Counseling and Counseling Psychology Department at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. She is also a licensed clinical mental health counselor in New Hampshire, national certified counselor and approved clinical supervisor. Her research focuses on trauma recovery and posttraumatic growth, with a particular emphasis on the sociocultural factors affecting these processes. Contact her at jyotsana.sharma@okstate.edu.

Carolyn Shivers is an associate professor of psychology at Niagara University. Her work involves understanding and eliminating barriers to inclusion for people with physical, cognitive and psychiatric disabilities.

Cadence Bolinger is a doctoral student in the Counseling and Counseling Psychology Department at Oklahoma State University-Stillwater.

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2 Comments

  1. Diane McCollum

    I have experienced what you are describing. i have found that it takes longer and is more difficult to treat than a first time first person trauma which is immediately recognized and the survivor immediately supported by her family system. I worked in the counseling field for more than 25 years in non-profits serving abuse victims who were below the poverty line. I find Bowen’s theories a helpful way to intellectualize the secondary victimization I experienced during that time.
    Diane McCollum,MS,LPC,LMFT

    Reply
  2. Raymond Merriweather

    I appreciate the article of Intergenerational Trauma. I am a Pastor of an African American Baptist Church near Philadelphia. I am a retired School Administrator, and finished my Coursework at GCU. I am ABD in my PhD work in General Psychology. I would love to look into other work pertaining to this subject and others like it. Thank you.

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