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Ways of Knowing: Transgenerational Trauma

Rob LeSueur

George Mason University


Ways of Knowing: Transgenerational Trauma


The idea of trauma being passed on through generations is referred to with many terms

including transgenerational trauma, intergenerational trauma, and multigenerational trauma. The

definitions vary slightly between these terms, but are all interrelated. Dass-Brailsoford (2007, p.

???) defines defined transgenerational trauma as “the cumulative emotional and psychological Commented [PN1]: Need to develop APA style habits!!! If
direct quote, always needs page number. Have reference info
close. One way to avoid the challenges of the APA manual is to use
wounding that is transmitted from one generation to the next.” (2007). a paper that has been published in an APA formatted journal and
copy 

History of Transgenerational Trauma Commented [PN2]: Once it has been published, it is past tense.
Applies throughout 

The research of on transgenerational trauma started in the 1960s with researchers

observing traumatic responses to the Holocaust by children of survivors (Firestone, 2014;

Goodman, 2013; Phipps & Degges-White, 2014). The research started withbegan by the look

intoexamining survivor’s guilt, or the trauma and grieving experienced by an individual who Commented [PN3]: Avoid the colloquial common for a more
formal language.

lives through an event while another does not, particularly when the triggering death was sudden,

traumatic, or multiple deaths (MADD, 2015). The idea of survivor’s guilt was combined as a

potential symptom of with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a potential symptom instead

of being an official diagnosis (Kangas, 2014). Commented [PN4]: Awkward – with might resolve the problem
– not sure

As the research progressed, traumas beyond the Holocaust began to be noticed as

causational events for transgenerational trauma especially the effects of imperialism on native

peoples, slavery, and genocide (Durham & Webb, 2014). Depending on the area in which the

research took placewas conducted, the research took different paths to identifying Commented [PN5]: That colloquial thing again 

transgenerational trauma (Phipps & Degges-White, 2014; Shevlin & McGuigan, 2003; Fonagy,

1999). The common thread in the early research was that researchers were examining trauma

responses and the resulting negative behaviors in the firsthand experiencers of the trauma when

similar responses would arise in the family around the initial experiencer. As the examination

into this newly researched phenomenon continued, the psychological effects on third-generation

and further removed generations from the initial traumatic experience began to be identified

(Firestone, 2014; Ritter, 2015). Also during this time, the emergence of research into minorities

and how they are effected by transgenerational traumas occurred. and rResearch into related to

indigenous people, immigrants, and other minorities who have been subjected to systematic

bigotry further showed evidence of transgenerational trauma (Phipps & Degges-White, 2014;

Osher et al., 2011).

The research has identified the initially identified negative psychological effects, but

newer research has also identified some positive results of transgenerational trauma (Goodman,

2013). The commonly observed negative effects often present similarly to PTSD (Downes,

Harrison, Curran, & Kavanagh, 2012). The observed negative symptoms of transgenerational

trauma vary greatly. Common observed trends among negative effects include depression,

substance abuse, alcoholism, anxiety, anger, guilt, and problems identifying and expressing

emotions (Osher et al., 2011; Grayshield, Rutherford, Salazar, Mihecoby, & Luna, 2015;

Downes et al., 2012; Durham & Webb, 2014). The most common positive result of

transgenerational trauma cited is an increase in resilience (Danieli et al., 2015; Phipps & Degges-

White, 2014; Goodman, 2013). Firestone (2014) also notes the positive attributes of a strong

will to survive, enhanced familial bonds, and a desire to assist others. Another observed positive

effect was an increase in awareness of their own culture and a sense of cultural pride (Pokhrel &

Herzog, 2014).

Transgenerational trauma is still not listed in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental

Disorders (DSM), even though the existence of the effects of transgenerational trauma has been

well-documented (Grayshield et al., 2015). The current definition within the DSM of trauma

does not include a condition that would allow a sufferer of the effects of transgenerational

trauma to be diagnosed (Goodman, 2013).

Theories of Transmission

Many theories about how the initial trauma is transmitted through generations currently

exist. These theories have evolved over time, but no one theory is predominantly accepted over

another (Downes et al., 2012).

Stress-Vulnerability Models

This model states that it is not the trauma that is transmitted, but instead a vulnerability to

develop PTSD after a traumatic vent happens in the life of the offspring (Downes et al., 2012).

Physiological Transmission

This theory of transmission focuses on the mother transmitting her traumatic past to her

offspring born after the trauma occurs. This theory centers on the fact that cortisol levels have

been noted to be reduced in individuals that are diagnosed with PTSD. Cortisol effects how an

individual responds to stress. In research, newborns that were born to mothers diagnosed with

PTSD also had reduced levels of cortisol (Phipps & Degges-White, 2014).


These theories state that it is the parents’ parenting behaviors that transmit the trauma

across generations and result in their children’s development (Danieli et al., 2015). This could

be a result of poor parenting as a symptom of the PTSD in the parent, leaving the child without

the skills to cope with stress (Fonagy, 1999).


In this theory, the transgenerational trauma manifests through the second-generation

experiencer living in both the experiences of their parent’s traumatic past as well as in reality.

The second sufferer lives their reality while trying to recreate and understand their parent’s

experience. This results in a struggle with this created trauma in the second sufferer’s mind and

their reality (Fonagy, 1999).

Family Systems

This theory focuses on interpersonal patterns within families experiencing

transgenerational trauma (Downes et al., 2012). The research has repetitively shown evidence

that the initial trauma is avoided and not discussed within the family in a pattern (Danieli et al.,

2015; Goodman, 2013; Feldman, 2015). In this theory, information and facts about the initial

trauma are not shared with the family in a perceived attempt to protect others from the trauma

(Downes et al., 2012). Despite the efforts to minimize the effects of the trauma through not

sharing or discussing it, the trauma is expressed and transmitted non-verbally (Firestone, 2014).

An image of the trauma can form in the following generations can develop from the fragmented

stories from what is said and non-verbal transmission in conjunction with any knowledge of the

initial trauma (Downes et al., 2012; Firestone, 2014; Kwan, 2013).

Current Communities of Transgenerational Trauma Knowers

Many separate in diverse communities exist of transgenerational trauma knowers. These

communities can vary in size from a single familial unit all the way up to an entire nation of

people. The shared experience of the initial trauma separates the communities into their separate

domains, but commonalities in effects exist across all communities (Hartmann & Gone, 2014;

Phipps & Degges-White, 2014; Kwan, 2013; Osher et al., 2011; Downes et al., 2012).

Methodology of Transgenerational Trauma Knowers


Research currently mainly focuses on the symptoms or treatment of sufferers of

transgenerational trauma, but a methodology of thought process and transmission can be

observed in two ways: perception and narrative.


The major portion of how transgenerational trauma experiencers view the world (or their

way of knowing) is through an altered way of perceiving the world around them. This altered

perception can be categorized into reactionary perception and resilience (Phipps & Degges-

White, 2014).

Reactionary perception. Reactionary perception is the quick jump to conclusions about

the world around the experiencer, often the result of fear (Peirce, 2013). This reactionary

perception is most often observed with perceived slights and reliance on stereotypes to define the

outside world (Phipps & Degges-White, 2014; Pokhrel & Herzog, 2014; Firestone, 2014).

Perceived slights are defined as everyday actions toward the experiencer that the perceiver takes

as discrimination regardless of the intention (Pokhrel & Herzog, 2014). These perceived slights

often are the result of a mistrust of the world outside the people in the experiencer’s own people.

This is a learned and transmitted fear and mistrust (Firestone, 2014).

Resilience. Another resulting perception shift is that of marked increases in resilience

among transgenerational trauma experiencers (Pihama et al., 2014). Resilience is defined as “the

ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges” (Walsh, 2003, p. 1). It has been

suggested that focusing on resilience can dampen the negative effects of transgenerational

trauma (Goodman, 2013; Durham & Webb, 2014; Hartmann & Gone, 2014). This resilience is a

shared benefit among the experiencers, often through cultural traditions (Hartmann & Gone,


Narrative Way of Knowing

The narrative way of knowing focuses on storytelling through written and spoken words

or visual representation (Chaitin, 2003). Narrative methods in research emphasize descriptions

and explanations (Sandelowski, 2007). Culturally, stories are shared between generations to

teach lessons, relate history, and explain the world in which the culture exists (Block &

Weatherford, 2013).

Pattern of Silence. While most narrative transmission occurs through oral or written

traditions, transgenerational trauma has been shown to be transmitted as much or more by what

is not said (Kwan, 2013; Schwab, 2004; Danieli et al., 2015; Fonagy, 1999; Baum, 2013). This

tendency to avoid talking and sharing about the initial trauma is coined the “conspiracy of

silence” (Danieli et al., 2015; Goodman, 2013) or “the unspoken” (Downes et al., 2012;

Feldman, 2015). While the conspiracy of silence is noted in familial settings, it is mirrored in the

response of society to the trauma (Downes et al., 2012). This is expounded when children are

involved; it is assumed that the truth is dangerous to their psyche (Downes et al., 2012; Rogers,

2002). Some research has shown the development of fantasies to explain the affect of trauma or

to connect fragments of information into a more coherent trauma story (Schwab, 2004; Fonagy,

1999; Downes et al., 2012). Links between a lack of factual information about the initial trauma

and an increase in negative symptoms have been observed (Downes et al., 2012).

Cognitive Schemas. Another way that transgenerational trauma is transmitted and

known is through schemas, or the shaping forces within an individual’s way of knowing, that are

passed through the generations, both in verbal and non-verbal methods (Potter, 2015; Firestone,

2014). Children hear and witness how their parents experience the world and recreate their

parents’ schema as their own.


Implications for Research and Inquiry

Most of the research thus far has focused on a corrective model of a negative disorder.

Further research needs to be done on the experiences of transgenerational trauma focusing less

on the negative symptoms of having such a worldview and more on the benefits to the self, the

cultural group, and the world as a whole that are available from an individual that experiences

transgenerational trauma. A theme of breaking or extinguishing the cycle of transgenerational

trauma when looking at what is being written on the topic (Schwab, 2004; Durham & Webb,

2014; Firestone, 2014). While the negative effects should be mitigated, complete breaking of the

transgenerational trauma ignores the benefits that are also present. Some have suggested that

this desire to break the cycle is actually a traumatic experience in itself (Potter, 2015; Sacks,

2015; Osher et al., 2011; Durham & Webb, 2014).

There are also implications for researchers working with cultural groups that are

experiencing transgenerational trauma, as well as for researchers that have transgenerational

trauma themselves. Due to the findings that minorities are more likely to experience

transgenerational trauma (Durham & Webb, 2014; Pokhrel & Herzog, 2014), a researcher

working with a minority population must be cognizant of the possibility that their subjects are

experiencing transgenerational trauma. This is of even greater concern when the researcher is

considered an outsider of the minority population’s culture and could be further expounded if the

researcher belongs to a majority class. Researchers that experience transgenerational trauma also

need to be able to recognize possible interference within their research due to effects like

perception of being slighted or stereotypical leanings.

What This Way of Knowing Means to Me


My work in Ukraine focuses on a culture that knows and lives through a

transgenerational trauma that is centuries old. The history of the Ukrainian people has been full

of colonization by a multitude of outside cultures and a lot of war, genocide, and hardship. If

just the last decade is taken into account in traumas that are being transmitted through the

generations of Ukrainians, the list of atrocities that they have faced is tremendous. Orchestrated

famines such a Holodomor, the Holocaust, occupation by both the Soviets and the Nazis,

Chernobyl, Maidan, and currently a proxy war with Russia and the resulting refuge crisis all lead

to a culture that lives and to some extent expects trauma.

In order to continue to work with the Ukrainian people, I have to at the very least

understand the lens of transgenerational trauma in which they see the world. As I work with a

part of the culture that is already on the fringe of Ukrainian culture (individuals with disabilities,

their families, and the professionals who work with these individuals), I must be able to at least

try to differentiate their viewpoints from those of transgenerational trauma experiencers and

those from their current situation.



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Rob - I am convinced. Intergenerational trauma does shape culturally situated ways of knowing :-) Reporting

about resilience, reactionary perception, the role of narrative, patterns of silence, and cognitive schemas

certainly demonstrates how the lens that some use to view the world derives from experiences of trauma

and can be inadvertently passed on.

Your paper would have been much more powerful if you had situated it a thesis or problem. In other

words, you simply jumped into talking about intergenerational trauma without letting the reader know

why it was important, why the topic attracted you, what problem you were trying to explore. In fact, this

was an exploration of intergenerational trauma as a "way of knowing" - asking the question "if" or making

the point that it "is." Then, of course, it would be important to talk about what a way of knowing is, why a

way of knowing is important, what are criteria for identifying something as a "way of knowing." Then, the

remainder of your paper would be much like it is but all that information would have a context - a reason

for being in the paper. And, at the end, not only would you be able to say why it is important to your

work but how you have answered the question of supported the thesis. If all that doesn't make sense, lets

talk :-)
Finally, it is really important that you work on and develop your editing skills and your APA skills. Use

others, use the writing center, read out loud. All those finishing touches really show that the paper is

valuable to you, that the ideas are worthy of attention! I edited the first couple paragraphs just by way of

example :-)

Thanks for taking on this topic - I learned a lot and was drawn into a domain of inquiry I was unaware

of. The "reactionary perception" caught my eye especially - hmmmm, more research???? Priscilla