Trauma travels through generations


ESTABLISHED PATTERNS Untangling ourselves from the trauma of previous generations is not always easy, but it’s worth it.

Mental Matters

Jannah Walshe

The effects of trauma that is passed down through the generations is known as transgenerational trauma or intergenerational trauma. Someone can not only experience trauma, they can also pass the symptoms and behaviours of trauma survival on to their children, who then might further pass these along to their children and so on.
Have you ever taken the time to look back and see what trauma or difficult experiences are in your ancestral history? What, if anything, could still be having an effect on your life today?
The impact of transgenerational trauma is not often recognised but it is significant. For example a parent who never dealt with their own trauma may find it very difficult to provide emotional support when their own child is suffering from his or her own trauma.
Trauma can result from anything from experiencing war, extreme poverty, natural disasters such as hurricanes, volcanos or earthquakes to being in a serious accident, experiencing serious injury or illness, suffering abuse or violence. Whatever the cause – and there are many – the level of impact on the individual is not determined by the nature of trauma itself but by how the person processes and perceives it and how they cope with it. This means that the experience of trauma is subjective. What is traumatic for one person may not be for another and vice versa.
It is very common for families to use one of two unhealthy coping mechanisms: denial and minimising. Denial entails refusing to acknowledge the trauma happened, while minimisation entails ignoring the impact of the trauma and making the traumatic experience appear smaller than it really is.
These ways of coping can continue for generations and become the normal way of behaving within the family.
Also passed on are the symptoms of surviving trauma, symptoms like PTSD, anxiety, addictions, depression and anger. Trauma can affect the way someone parents, and parenting affects the way a child thinks and behaves, which can impact how that child parents when they are an adult. Trauma can also affect a parent’s ability to offer a child proper attachment and love, the types of activities a parent decides to do or not do with their child, the stories a parent tells a child, and the perspective on life, personal values and core beliefs a parent teaches the child.
Untangling ourselves from the trauma of previous generations is not always an easy process. For the most part, support is required to identify the patterns, work through them and to change core beliefs and behavioural patterns that inherited trauma can leave on us.
Healing and transforming the wounds we carry from those who came before changes the course for those who come after. Your children and their children will have healthier ways of coping. If we can break the chain of addiction, violence or unhealthy beliefs, our children and those who follow them are given access to possibilities that were not available to our ancestors. It takes courage to do this type of work but if done well it is extremely valuable.

Jannah Walshe is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Castlebar and Westport. A fully accredited member of The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, she can be contacted via, or at or 085 1372528.