Should mental health professionals understand intergenerational trauma?

Támara Hill

Támara Hill, MS, NCC, CCTP, LPC is a licensed therapist and certified trauma professional who specializes in working with children and adolescents who suffer from mood disorders, emotional trauma, and disruptive behavioral disorders. Disclaimer: This is an independent blog and ACAMH may not necessarily hold the same views.

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I am motivated by the topic of trauma. This motivation led me to become a trauma therapist about 8 years ago. Of the 8 out of the 10 years I’ve been in the field of psychotherapy, I recognized a major need for real trauma therapists, especially for children and adolescents.

Although becoming a trauma therapist entails a license and certification as well as engagement in an approved training program, becoming a trauma therapist requires much more than this. It requires a deep interest in the emotional and psychological challenges of sufferers. It also includes an authentic connection to the client including knowledge, interest, love and compassion, and access to educational resources. Sadly, most people, including mental health therapists, struggle to understand what emotional and psychological trauma is, even though it affects about 26% of the United States child population and about 60% of adults. In the United Kingdom, an article published by the Independent stated that 4 systematic reviews of trauma-based studies showed only 0-22% of psychiatric patients were asked about a history of trauma. Another review showed that there were over 58,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse (a traumatic experience) in the UK in 2016. It’s a major public health concern (all over the world) that mental health professionals are becoming more aware of, but slowly.

Those who are aware of the importance of understanding traumatic stress and emotional trauma may not fully understand the topic of intergenerational trauma. We certainly need this to change.

I tend to define inter-generational trauma as a traumatic event that began years prior to the current generation and has impacted the ways in which individuals within a family understand, cope with, and heal from trauma. For example, the patriarch of a family may suffer from an untreated severe mental health disorder which causes him to engage in harmful behaviors toward his daughter. This daughter, having endured years of emotional and psychological abuse, now has her own family but has not been able to release herself (psychologically and emotionally) from the torture she endured. As a result, she begins to exhibit many of the same behaviors of the patriarch which leads to her own children exhibiting similar behaviors. These behaviors, including dysfunctional ways of coping, continue for generations. These unhealthy behaviors then become a “normal” way of raising children within the family.

Intergenerational trauma can negatively impact families as a result of:

  1. Unresolved emotions and thoughts about a traumatic event
  2. Negative repeated patterns of behavior including beliefs about parenting
  3. Untreated or poorly treated substance abuse or severe mental illness
  4. Poor parent-child relationships and emotional attachment
  5. Complicated personality traits or personality disorders
  6. Content attitude with the ways things are within the family

I’m sure you have heard of the families who hide sexual abuse for generations until someone decides, in the family tree, to end the secrecy and get real help. This is a common occurrence but something many clients tend to be ashamed of. In fact, it appears some mental health professionals may not know quite how to address it either. It has been my experience that it is easier for a therapist to allow the client to “guide” sessions instead of the therapist broaching uncomfortable topics of family trauma. Some of this avoidance is healthy, while some of it is not.

In addition, we must keep in mind that traumatic stress isn’t necessarily an inevitable consequence of a traumatic event itself. Traumatic stress is connected to how the individual processes and perceive the event and how they use their resources to cope. Trauma can result from any circumstance that outweighs your ability to cope. It is very subjective which is why we, as mental health professionals, must be careful not to imply trauma (even if the event would be traumatizing to us). This is a mistake I made as a beginning trauma therapist.

So how do you help a client or family suffering from generations of traumatic experiences? Awareness, education, and training.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about intergenerational trauma:

  1. Understand that intergenerational trauma almost always includes a loss of safety (emotional/psychological, physical, financial, etc).
  2. Be aware of the emotions your clients are expressing to you and be open to psychoanalyzing their reactions and the ways they discuss their emotions.
  3. Encourage your client to openly discuss (when ready) the loss they feel and why. You can eventually help them define and add meaning to their story.
  4. Help them understand that while you want to give them time to open up, you will not “stall” for time if the inter-generational trauma is the elephant in the room.
  5. Once the heavy processing involved in trauma work is over, lead your client to focus on designing a future far removed from their thoughts and feelings of the intergenerational trauma. They must understand that generational chaos can end with them.

We have so many lives that need us. We have so many callings in this field. It is up to us to offer our clients the support and care they so desperately seek. Becoming and ultimately feeling competent, knowledgeable, and ready is the first step toward offering our clients quality trauma-informed care.

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