Essay on Generational Trauma

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 As we have seen through Sandra Uwiringiyimama’s novel How Dare The Sun Rise and the storytelling of Jeanne Sinzinkayo, trauma can affect the human psyche in a plethora of different ways, often with the ability to transcend the initial moment of experience. Transgenerational trauma can become a vicious cycle that alters the lives of generations far removed from the initial instance of impact. Systemically, there is far too little help for those who may face an adverse experience in their childhood, allowing for these traumas to haunt families for years to follow. The individuals who have been faced with ACEs are forced to battle them alone, potentially carrying their trauma to their future families and children.

Liberatory consciousness is an essential part of any healing process, specifically prevalent in the overcoming of trauma with the allowance of the ability to feel the pain that has been harbored inside. Without this liberation from pain, transgenerational trauma will persist. I argue that there are far too few resources for those who may be seeking care for their trauma. Specifically, children who do not receive care for traumatic events may never have the chance to cope with it, carrying that weight to other aspects of their lives. This issue, along with the staggering stigma surrounding mental health treatment, contributes to the perpetuation of generational trauma.

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The scenario that Sandra and Jeanne faced in their lives is not presented in isolation, as many children in the United States face traumas that go unresolved leading to the creation of extreme responses. Systemic flaws within the mental health field, along with lack of access and negative stigmas associated with mental health all contribute to the large issue of untreated ACEs. In recent years, there has been vast research done on the effects that adverse childhood experiences have on developing individuals’ cognitive and emotional progression. Research done by (Pappano, 2014) indicates that nearly 68% of children experience at least some form of traumatic event in young adulthood, although most do not face an instance as tragic as genocide. ACEs, also known as adverse childhood experiences can be defined as potentially traumatic events that occur in a child’s life. These can include things such as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, exposure to wartime, familial death, and neglect. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ACEs include 10 differing experiences that are grouped into broader categories as follows: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”

Manifested in the lives of Sandra and Jeanne, are the remnants of potential PTSD from the genocide that their families suffered through. Both Jeanne and Sandra were young children the year that the massacre occurred. Jeanne, almost too young to remember anything is still haunted by the memories which are unerasable from that night. In her book, Sandra wrote about how she was unable to sleep for weeks after the night of the genocide. At the time I don’t believe she realized that her inability to go to sleep was a remnant of the potential PTSD she had developed from that night. According to the Here To Help journal, “the most common mental health issue for refugees is post-traumatic stress disorder and related symptoms of depression, anxiety, inattention, sleeping difficulties, nightmares, and survival guilt.”(p.)

Recognizing someone who has experienced trauma can be challenging because reactions to these types of situations can vary quite widely. These differing reactions are referred to as, human trauma responses; also known as HTRs. Many symptoms accompany HTR as they can include depression, self-destructive behavior, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, or substance abuse. However, the treatment and identification of these symptoms differ based on the affected group. Jeanne spoke of life after her family's move to the United States, she shared that her brother and her have rarely spoken in the many years since they have lived here. She explained her brother as essentially “emotionless”, and implied that he had been taking part in extremely isolating behaviors. Jeanne went as far as to say that she has never once met one of her brother's friends, an explanation given by her beliefs that he truly doesn’t have any. He rarely speaks to their mother, living in a shell of the person he used to be before that night. From this account, it becomes clear that her brother is probably feeling a deep level of survivor's guilt since he was staying away at a hotel the night of the massacre. Similarly, Sandra carried the guilt of the loss of her sister Debrah, often letting the pain of watching her sister die overtake her. Even while living in the United States, she writes, “Still, I carried tremendous anger about the massacre and about how Deborah had been taken from me. I did not forgive. I could not let my anger go. I thought that the burning pain in my chest was Deborah, and I needed to hold onto that pain to hold onto Deborah.”(p.) I argue that both Jeanne, her brother, and Sandra, could reach a level of liberatory consciousness if only they allowed themselves to be submersed in their trauma while using the tools provided by a professional to cope. Unfortunately, instead, they have been left to cope with the aftermath of the genocide without the care of a mental health professional.

With the knowledge that these experiences are so profound in a young individual’s life, the question arises as to why there is not a universal mental health care system to help children deal with the traumas they have endured. Behavioral health service providers should be prepared to help the client get grounded so that they can distinguish between what is happening now versus the trauma that they may have experienced in the past. The expressions of the emotions behind the trauma can be liberating for a survivor. As Sandra wrote in her book “I felt so much better when I let my feelings out, instead of trying to keep them bottled up. It's exhausting when you think that you're not entitled to your emotions”(p.). The sharing of our stories is oftentimes a way in which we can heal from them. Unfortunately, Sandra is not alone in her pain as it is reported by the Mental Help website that some 60% of adults with mental illness, do not receive some sort of mental health treatment. This statistic is strikingly large when we realize that nearly 1 in 5 people within the United States suffer from some form of mental illness, meaning there are roughly 47 million.

Research conducted within the context of the article “Adjustment Disorders as a Stress-Related Disorder” speaks to the sort of problems people can face after experiencing trauma. Using a population of around 100 people who were predisposed to extreme trauma, researchers used a linear regression model to track the participant’s stress level and overall mental health at three different points during the study. They found that the initial stress response explained more than half of the variance in mental health between participants. So if individuals are put through a traumatic experience and are not given some sort of help through recovery, that increases their likelihood of having mental and emotional disturbance afterward. Additionally, they found that the best predictor of mental health at discharge was the individual's level of emotional distress at the baseline initial trauma. This research is important because it once again points to the need for treatment, and indicates that without it, long-term effects can be extremely detrimental.

Knowing how prevalent and taxing trauma can be on an individual's life leaves us to wonder what sort of impact it can have on their children and families if is not properly treated. According to a YouTube film published by the Healing Foundation, people who don’t have the opportunity to heal from trauma may unknowingly pass it on to others through their behaviors. Their children may experience difficulties with attachment, disconnection from their extended families and culture, and high levels of stress from family and community members who are dealing with the impacts of trauma. This can create a plethora of issues for children, who are particularly susceptible to distress at a young age. This creates a cycle of trauma, where the impact is passed from one generation to the next. Transgenerational trauma is a relatively new theory within the field of psychology which states that trauma can be transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors through complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms. This means that the moment of trauma does not have to be directly experienced by all of the family members; something as simple as the type of parenting can affect children's perceptions. Researcher Brent Bezo goes as far as to say “Each generation seemed to learn from the previous one, with survivors telling children, ‘Don’t trust others, don’t trust the world” (p.2). The growth in the study of transgenerational trauma is leading researchers to believe that these transgenerational effects are not only psychological but familial, social, cultural, neurobiological, and possibly even genetic as well.

Another instance of genocide in which we can see the impact of transgenerational trauma is the Holocaust. According to the book Trauma and Rebirth, “Studies of Holocaust survivors are important not only in themselves but also for their value in assessing the long-term and intergenerational effects of severe victimization and of other forms of exposure to excessive, prolonged stress”(p.). Researchers found that while many of the individuals directly impacted by the holocaust responded with resilience, second and third-generations removed, suffered the highest rates of secondary traumatic stress, lower levels of differentiation of self, and poorer family communication compared to those who had not been raised by a survivor. Results led researchers to conclude that both G2 and G3 had a mixture of both resilience but also a high level of vulnerability.

About studies on the long-term effects of the holocaust, there has also been vast research done on the Intergenerational transmission of war experiences, within families. According to the book “Behavioral and Health Science, “Survivors' immediate reactions in the aftermath of trauma are quite complicated and are affected by their own experiences outside of the tragedy” (). The level of reactiveness of an individual in the immediate time following the trauma may be a good indicator of how those issues will manifest throughout the rest of their lives, these findings support those of previous studies done on adjustment disorders. This form of trauma results in a greater loss of identity and meaning, which in turn affects generations upon generations as the trauma is ingrained into society. It makes sense that Sandra and her family would feel this loss of identity after they had moved to the United States. The people in the Gutumba refugee camp were all stripped of their identities when their government attempted to take the lives of the innocent people they massacred the night of the genocide. Their identities were also stripped again and again when the government consistently denied the occurrence of any such tragedy. This loss of the person who once was is the exact type of instance that needs to be brought to life through consciousness. Sandra’s writing of the novel is her way of achieving this consciousness to an extent. The creation of a book that highlighted the atrocities of that night was a way for her to heal and share her story.

It became evident from our conversation with Jeanne that this sort of transgenerational trauma could exist within both her and her brother’s lives. Jeanne spoke about how her brother has essentially become selectively mute since the murder of both her sister and her father in the genocide. Jeanne herself uses laughter as a means to cope with the pain of discussing that horrific night. In her case, laughter releases endorphins which act in a way to shield the pain that comes with talking about such a profound experience. Jeanne mentioned that she had not sought professional care from a psychologist and that her family was not offered counseling when they came to the United States. Her brother had gone to a therapist a mere 3 times before he shut that out as an option. Part of the reason that the families of Jeanne and Sandra did not seek professional help after the genocide may have to do with the stigma surrounding the mental health field. Jeanne talked about the strict beliefs of her culture and mentioned how counseling is not something that people from her country normally turn to in their time of need. This may be the case for many refugees who come from highly religious communities. Jeanne noted how faith is looked at as a way to overcome most hardships within her culture. This close tie to religion sometimes limits people from seeking the help they need. According to a piece published in the Irish Times, many psychologists believe that “religious beliefs and concerns are best left outside the offices of mental health professionals” (p.3). The emphasis on science in medicine and evidence-based practice, in general, does not lend well to honestly and openly considering issues that have their roots in the supernatural. From this, we see that religion and culture can play a large role in the stigma of mental health treatment as well.

According to the North American Refugee Health Conference (2019) held in Toronto, Canada, “Refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict in their homeland often have high levels of psychological distress and should undergo routine mental health screening at arrival to a new country” (p.4). Once arrive in the United States, there are no resources that screen for mental illness or symptoms of PTSD. Refugees are thrown into this new world and essentially told to bear it as well as they can. Without guidance, many of them may not even know they are experiencing symptoms of trauma from the conflict that they were exposed to in their homeland.

There are glimmers of hope in the treatment of mental disturbances in young children who have experienced trauma. One of the best ways to access children is through their education. Emerging from this high number of children in need is the formation of resources for dealing with their trauma using Trauma-informed care within an educational setting. Trauma-informed schooling aims to look at the child as a whole, with the understanding that they have been through extreme trauma and that this in turn most likely has affected the way that they function. Trauma-informed classrooms can be a great environment where a student who has gone through a traumatic experience can feel comfortable and safe. In addition, there is also evidence to support the notion that trauma-informed schools help all students to reach their full potential. Overall trends in the research indicate that trauma-informed schooling can help students affected turn their experiences into resilience rather than allow them to be overcome by it. This means that a simple intervention like this could potentially put a halt to the continuation of transgenerational trauma by stopping it in its tracks. The cognitive behavioral intervention for trauma in schools indicates lowered traumatic stress, and physical, emotional, and social problems in children, which would typically be presented in an educational setting.

Liberatory consciousness is a means of allowing an individual to live in an unjust system with the knowledge and awareness that it is such. Both Jeanne and Sandra talk about their stories so that others can know the knowledge of the Guntumba massacre. They talk about their stories so the lives of those lost do not go unnoticed or forgotten. Most importantly, they talk about their stories to heal, to raise the level of awareness of the injustices they have faced, and to warn others of the powers of oppressive governments. Without their narratives, the loss of their family and people would be much deeper, through their stories they keep them alive, and begin to rediscover life, piece by piece.  

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Essay on Generational Trauma. (2024, May 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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