Generational Trauma: Breaking the Cycle of Its Impact on Youth

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<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >Generational Trauma: Breaking the Cycle of Its Impact on Youth</span>

Very few people go through life without encountering some form of trauma. However, the types of trauma and the responses to it can differ greatly from one person to the next. Responses can be severe to the point where an individual develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can permeate many aspects of life or so subtly that a person’s life does not seem to be negatively affected. 

In either case, it is critical for those who have experienced trauma to learn healthy coping mechanisms through family therapy that aims to prevent further psychological and physical harm. Otherwise, a group or individual may risk passing trauma onto their children – an occurrence known as generational trauma.

What is Generational Trauma? 

According to Dr. Fabiana Franco, Ph.D., generational trauma “may begin with a traumatic event affecting an individual, traumatic events affecting multiple family members, or collective trauma affecting larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups/populations.”

One study of generational trauma examined how the mass starvation of millions of Soviet Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933 (Holodomor) affected the children and grandchildren of the Holodomor survivors.

The study found that second and third generations exhibited signs of still living in a food crisis, such as “stockpiling of food, reverence for food, overemphasis on food and overeating, inability to discard unneeded items, an indifference toward others, social hostility and risky health behaviors.”

The enslavement of African people in the United States and the racism that followed their freedom is another example of generational trauma. Studies show that the trauma of slavery and racism contribute to anxiety-related conditions, poor health, and maladaptive behaviors that Black people currently face.

Generational trauma can also stem from an individual experiencing trauma. For example, research shows that children, particularly males, who experience violent abuse are more likely to be violent later in life. 

How Generational Trauma Affects Youth  

Parents who have not healed from traumatic experiences are likely to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and pass harmful behaviors onto their children. Below are two significant ways generational trauma can affect children.

1. Physical Harm

A systematic review of 97 studies examined the relationship between childhood maltreatment and its effect on future generations. 

The results are as follows: 

  • Parents who reported experiencing physical abuse as children were more likely to report participating in aggressive behaviors toward their children when compared to non-abused parents.
  • Mothers who experienced both physical abuse and witnessed intimate partner violence were twice as likely to physically harm their children compared to mothers who experienced just one form of violence.
  • Young mothers with a history of childhood neglect were 2.6 times more likely to report engaging in neglectful parenting than those who received proper care and attention as children.
  • Fathers with a history of physical childhood abuse were more likely to harm their children. 

2. Psychological disorders 

A 2017 review of 20 studies of children who survived cultural and war trauma found negative psychiatric, psychosocial, and/or behavioral tendencies in survivors’ offspring.

Another study examined 484 adult children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and interviewed 191 of those offspring. Of the smaller sample, 35% had a generalized anxiety disorder, 26% had a major depressive episode in their lifetime, and 14% had PTSD.

Yael Danieli, Ph.D., co-founder, and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children in New York, says these effects on children of survivors often stem from “reparative adaptational impacts” – the notion that survivors’ offspring often unconsciously try to “repair the world” for family members who survived against all odds.

Although healing from generations of passed-down trauma can be difficult, it is necessary for the health and safety of our youth. Functional Family Therapy is one modality that can help break the cycle. 

How Functional Family Therapy Can Help Heal Generational Trauma 

Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is an innovative set of principles and practices aimed at promoting resilience in individuals and families, including those affected by trauma. FFT helps treat the underlying structure of families that have been traumatized across generations in an effort to halt patterns and resolve events that both cause and perpetuate trauma. 

FFT is a trauma-informed practice that aims to help families heal by acknowledging how trauma has impacted their lives and addressing these issues rather than ignoring them. In a trauma-informed therapy setting, people are not expected to "get over" or "work through" their experiences before they are ready. Instead, they are encouraged to take time to process what they have been through and learn healthy ways to cope with the effects.

When families and an FFT therapist come together, they share an open space for dialogue and are safe from judgment, which allows them to explore challenging subjects or memories. Not only does this create a space for self-exploration, but it also gives everyone in the family an opportunity to understand each other better.

Whether an individual is aware of it or not, trauma from the past can influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, there is a way to move beyond generational trauma. Functional Family Therapy is an effective way to heal from past events, break the cycle of generational trauma, and empower youth and families for generations to come.

FFT LLC brings Functional Family Therapy to over 40,000 at-risk families a year across the globe. Contact us for more information about our evidence-based youth and family counseling services. 


 Interested in bringing FFT to your community? Download How to Become a Functional Family Therapy (FFT) Provider: A Comprehensive Guide. 

FFT LLC brings Functional Family Therapy to over 40,000 at-risk families a year across the globe. Contact us for more information about our evidence-based youth and family counseling services.