May 19, 2022

The Effects of Intergenerational Trauma

If you saw Disney Pixar’s movie Turning Red, you’re familiar with its magical puberty metaphor. Mei, an adolescent girl, has a “gift” that is passed down to all the females on her mother’s side: she turns into a giant red panda whenever she experiences an intense emotion. But Turning Red is also about intergenerational trauma, in which the effects and trauma response are passed down from one generation to the next, rather than having a directly traumatic experience. Generations removed from the actual trauma itself may have symptoms like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trouble connecting to others, mistrust, hypervigilance, anxiety, and difficulty regulating moods.

Intergenerational trauma has been studied by looking at the families of groups that experienced collective trauma, such as Holocaust survivors, Japanese Americans in internment camp, and African-American descendants of slavery. Intergenerational trauma can be passed on through overt and subtle ways. For instance, parents with PTSD may have difficulty regulating their emotions, especially if they experience flashbacks of the trauma, which can affect their children’s experience. But if a parent’s trauma response is to detach or dissociate, it can also interfere with the child’s ability to develop a sense of safety in the world.

In addition to these collective traumas, the immigrant experience itself is often experienced as trauma too. It is complex and multifaceted, rife with profound losses and has a far-reaching effect on identity. The loss of homeland and culture, when layered with traumas endured prior to leaving their country, can lead to first- and second-generation immigrants finding themselves in crisis without fully understanding why. Trauma, direct and intergenerational, seeps into all aspects of our lives that may be far more subtle than turning into a giant red panda, but therapy can help you to work through those challenges.

Many of the Asian-American clients I work with grow up tasked with trying to honor their parents’ sacrifice, but like Mei, they can forget to honor themselves and their own possible contributions in their quest to represent their family and their community. So many first- and second-generation immigrants have access to opportunities their parents did not have, and that is the guilty burden to work through. In the end, Mei decides to keep her panda, something her mother, grandmother, and aunties ultimately leave behind. With the support she built, Mei could confront and accept her intergenerational trauma and integrate it into her life in a way that worked for her.

There are many effective treatments for intergenerational trauma, but more important is finding a good fit with a therapist. Many Asians seek out Asian therapists, but unfortunately that can be a challenge outside of major cities. When working with a non-Asian therapist, questions to ask during the consultation might include how the clinician addresses ethnicity/culture differences, the types of clients and cultures they have worked with, and what their position is on navigating racism and oppression. Most importantly, though, you should feel safe and not judged in therapy.

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