Intergenerational Trauma: A Guide to Teens on How to Undo the Cycle

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We are shaped by our family history and those who came before us. From eye color to personality traits, there are many aspects of who we are that have been passed down from previous generations. But unfortunately, it’s not always just the good things that we have inherited.

Intergenerational trauma can lay a heavy burden on you. Taking on the emotions and behaviors of previous generations due to past trauma can result in a cycle every time a new generation is born. It can be hard to break that cycle, and even harder to heal from trauma by undoing the damage it has caused your emotional, behavioral and mental health. But we’re here to help you work toward a happier and healthier future without the impact of intergenerational trauma.

Read on to learn about the basics of intergenerational trauma, how it can impact you, and the steps to help you break (and undo) the cycle.

What is intergenerational trauma?

Let’s start with determining what intergenerational trauma actually means, also known as generational or transgenerational trauma.

Intergenerational trauma refers to the effects of trauma that are passed down from one generation to the next. It means that if one person high up in your family tree experienced something dangerous or distressing, the impact of that experience can affect you decades, or even centuries later.

The most common causes of intergenerational trauma include:

  • Poverty
  • Natural disasters
  • Substance use
  • Child or domestic abuse
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse 
  • Parental incarceration
  • Divorce
  • Slavery
  • War or combat
  • Immigration

Intergenerational trauma is often common in specific groups or communities, such as Black Americans and Holocaust survivors.

What intergenerational trauma looks like

It’s not always easy to believe that an event that happened years before you were born can impact you. But there are many ways that intergenerational trauma can have emotional, mental and even physical effects. It’s important to note that it can actually change the way that the gene functions by altering the chemicals in your DNA.

Depending on the experience, intergenerational trauma can cause a family to have:

  • Attachment and trust issues
  • Unprocessed emotions pertaining to the traumatic event
  • Untreated or poorly treated mental health distress
  • Unhealthy behavior that has been normalized

Here are signs that you’ve been impacted by intergenerational trauma:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Feeling detached from yourself
  • Unresolved grief
  • Social isolation or withdrawal
  • Hypervigilance of your surroundings
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty forming connections with others
  • Reckless behavior (skipping class, disciplinary problems)

A guide to breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma 

Intergenerational trauma goes hand in hand with mental distress and mental health disorders. If you’re experiencing the effects of intergenerational trauma, it’s common to experience anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that interfere with your quality of life.

The key to alleviating the hold that intergenerational trauma has on you is by breaking the cycle that has occurred in your family for years. Not only are you helping to ease your own mental distress, but you’re preventing the trauma from being passed down to the children you may have in the future.

Here are three ways to help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma:


  • Recognizing patterns — Even though we all have flaws, it’s not always easy to recognize them in ourselves or those closest to us. Try to be more aware of potentially negative emotional or behavioral patterns that seem to run in your family. By pinpointing these patterns, you can determine how past trauma is currently reflected in your family.
  • Gaining support — The important thing to remember about intergenerational trauma is that it affects your whole family. Since these emotional or behavioral patterns are commonplace, your other loved ones may not recognize their ties to the trauma. Make an effort to start honest and educational conversations with your family members about how your family’s past has continued to influence the next generations.
  • Seeking professional mental health treatment — When it comes to mental or emotional distress, it’s always important to seek out professional help. Mental health providers can help you with psychotherapy so that you have a safe place to open up about your intergenerational trauma and develop the skills and coping mechanisms needed to stop the cycle. They can also help you manage anxiety, depression and PTSD symptoms.

Lightfully Behavioral Health can help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma

The thing about intergenerational trauma is that it can feel like it’s a cycle that will never break because it’s been happening for so many years. But you hold more power than you think. With the right support and resources, you can break free from the cycle and not feel the weight of the trauma on your shoulders in a way that interferes with your personal relationships and goals. 

While it’s important to learn and understand your family’s past, it shouldn’t damage your future. That’s why we’re here to help alleviate your mental distress and disorder symptoms from intergenerational trauma.

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of you.

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