Transgenerational trauma: can trauma be inherited?


A highly traumatising experience can cause severe psychological damage. In some cases, so much so that the consequences are felt by the patient’s descendants across several generations. What leads to transgenerational trauma.

Trauma without a reason?

A young female patient with a range of psychological issues seeks help from a psychotherapist. The young woman suffers from panic attacks, nightmares and fear of being touched in situations involving physical closeness. The therapist diagnoses her symptoms as consequences of traumatisation from sexual violence, even though there are no distressing events in the patient's biography to explain her condition. However, the patient's family history paints a different picture: older family members had been repeatedly subjected to abuse and mistreatment, generation after generation. Does this mean trauma can be inherited?

Indirect or secondary traumatisation

It’s quite possible to be traumatised without directly experiencing a traumatising event. Psychotherapy calls this indirect or secondary traumatisation. In this case, people develop post-traumatic symptoms, for example after a description of a traumatising experience or also by close interaction with traumatised persons.

Who is affected?

In many cases, those affected are therapists or relatives helping traumatised persons in their recovery. In some cases, however, the descendants of trauma victims can also develop traumatisation – what’s known as transgenerational trauma.

What is transgenerational trauma?

Transgenerational trauma is the term used when a trauma is passed on to one of the following generations. If the trauma is passed on to the directly following generation, the condition is known as secondary traumatisation. If the trauma is passed on to the third generation, experts speak of transgenerational traumatisation.

What are the symptoms of transgenerational trauma?

Transgenerational traumatisation affects various aspects of a person’s life, such as their imagination, self-image, emotional experiences and unconscious actions. The symptoms of transgenerational trauma are highly individual, although they may resemble those of the patient’s parents. However, family members often don’t talk to each other about their personal trauma, which makes it difficult to attribute potential symptoms.

Potential symptoms of transgenerational traumatisation

Symptoms can be the trauma sequelae as defined in the international classification (ICD-10), as well as non-specific symptoms, such as:

  • anxiety disorders
  • depressive moods
  • sleep disorders and concentration difficulties
  • unexplained physical symptoms
  • addiction
  • limited self-esteem
  • identity disorders and disturbed social behaviour

How can transgenerational trauma be resolved?

Transgenerational trauma can usually be processed with trauma therapy methods. During therapy, the family biography is examined as well as the communication culture and relationships within the patient’s family.

How trauma is passed on

Trauma can be passed on through generations if it’s not – or not fully – processed. Researchers believe that the psychological stress suffered by a traumatised person has a direct or indirect effect on the way they deal with their own children. Because of these influences and stresses, their children can develop inner conflicts and then pass these on to their own children too. : Researchers have also discovered that epigenetics plays an important role in the transmission of trauma. As a result, traumatising experiences can impact the psyche of several generations of a family.

Complex attempts to explain the phenomenon

However, the exact psychological processes behind this transgenerational transmission of trauma are complex and controversial. Researchers have contradictory explanations as to why trauma is transmitted transgenerationally at all. Nonetheless, there is agreement that trauma isn't inevitably transmitted to subsequent generations.

Firstly, reactions to similar experi­ences can vary greatly from one individual to another, and secondly, there are children with traumatic experiences who don’t suffer psychologically.
Prof. Dr. phil. Angela Moré

Research in work with survivors of the Nazi regime

Particularly since the 1960s onwards, the phenomenon of transgenerational trauma has been examined more closely in work conducted with descendants of Holocaust survivors. Researchers have found that some descendants of Holocaust survivors suffer from specific psychological symptoms that relate to trauma experienced by their parents or grandparents.

Positive reassessment of trauma

What’s also notable is that the act of processing the traumatic experiences suffered by parents or grandparents can help the patient reach a positive reassessment of the wounds they’ve inherited. For example: researchers have often observed a high degree of resilience in Shoah descendants.

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