A Family Systems Approach to Treating Intergenerational Trauma

When we think of creating family legacies and preserving family traditions, we focus on positive connections and joyous occasions. But often joy is only part of the family story.

When we think of creating family legacies and preserving family traditions, we focus on positive connections and joyous occasions. But often joy is only part of the family story. Pain, while often ignored or even denied, can be passed down from generation to generation.

This legacy of pain, coined Intergenerational trauma (IGT) after World War II, results from a family member’s personal trauma, such as:

  • Cultural attacks like the Holocaust or even 9-11
  • Extreme poverty
  • A natural disaster
  • Violent crime
  • A car accident or unexpected tragedy

Left unhealed, the wounds of traumatic events cause pain and produce ongoing, devastating generational family marks.

Several studies show that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors suffer anxiety, generalized fear, behavioral problems, and depression. These symptoms reveal that the trauma experiences of parents and grandparents have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on those who did not experience the original trauma firsthand.

Systemic Cultural Trauma

Much like the families who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, Native American and Alaskan Native populations show the suffering of systemic cultural attacks.

During the 1870’s, the United States government installed mandatory boarding school programs that took young Native Americans away from their families, tribes, and traditions. Designed to assimilate Native Americans and remove all of the “Indian” out of the person, young Native Alaskan children were taken from their villages and sent to boarding schools.

As recent as the 1960s, young Native Alaskan children were sent hundreds of miles from their families and communities. Through consistent and pervasive messages, students learned that their culture was “wrong,” including their foods, their clothes, and their languages. This assault on a sense of self-created a generation of traumatized children that did not understand their identity or their place in the world.

Constance Oozebaseuk, a Native Alaskan, was one of the children who involuntarily left her native village to attend a boarding over a thousand miles away from her community. Recalling the impact of Constance’s childhood, her daughter, Renee Schimmel, explains that Constance was sad when she was away from her home but was also miserable at home.

A 2005 study found that many Alaskan Natives suffered from an identity crisis and struggled when they had children of their own because they lacked connection to their elders and to their native cultural customs.

Treating Intergenerational Family Trauma

Family therapists who work with children experiencing the impact of intergenerational trauma often find client success when using a family systems approach to treating trauma that is designed to assess, intervene, and resolve patterns that perpetuate trauma.

Therapists trained by The Family Trauma Institute often use the Seed Tree Diagram, an FST | Family Systems Trauma technique, to uncover the seeds of parental and family trauma. When implemented, the Seed Tree Diagram orchestrates a roadmap for therapists and families to track the patterns rooted in intergenerational trauma, including unmet primal needs.

With the Seed Tree Diagram as a guide, therapists can use the following four strategies to help heal the pain caused by intergenerational trauma.

1. Lead Culture-Informed Treatment

In the case of Constance and Renee, effective treatment should be informed by their cultural ideals and customs. Often, culture is a source of both pride and pain. Thus, the treatment plan should allow for family members to discuss norms that fall into each category (pride or pain), as well as embrace the traditions that make sense for their family now and into the future.

Treatment founded on the cultural identification and needs of family members reduces anxiety and allows the family to create a prevention plan, with their therapist, as a team.

2. Interrupt Unhelpful Family Communication Patterns

When trauma is heavy within an individual, it spills into relationships and family culture. Trauma’s presence is most evident in verbal and non-verbal communication patterns within the family. Enactments (from Structural Therapy, and integrated into the Family Trauma Institute’s approach) are a powerful early treatment intervention for detaching family members from their trauma when the trauma is a generation or two in the past. They allow the family trauma therapist to observe and interrupt communication that heightens stress and disrupts connection. In addition, using Feedback Loops another FST Technique gives therapists a concrete to uncover unhealthy family communication and image new ways of healthy communication.

3. Give Trauma a Voice Within the Family

Silence and avoidance are common coping strategies in response to significant trauma. In second and subsequent generations, family members exhibit these coping strategies as habits, without understanding their origins. Facilitating conversations in therapy that allow parental figures and older generations to tell their stories gives context to relational dynamics. This is particularly helpful for children who may be feeling confused and lost in their family’s functioning.

4. Help Parents Offer Children Permission to Differentiate

Similarly, as parents tell their stories and develop a story-telling culture within their families, parents are able to proactively respond to their trauma experiences and help younger generations process the family’s trauma history. Younger generations are then able to make choices about how they want to incorporate the family’s history into their present and future while knowing that trauma is an acceptable topic of conversation within the family.

By leading the trauma conversation within their families, parents develop a strong family story, restore and strengthen bonds with their children, and offer children the freedom that comes with understanding their identity.

For more information on treating intergenerational trauma or other systemic family trauma, contact Dr. Scott Sells, Founder of The Family Trauma Institute at spsells@familytrauma.com

Dr. Scott Sells

Dr. Scott Sells

Dr. Scott Sells is the founder of the Family Trauma Institute and developer of the FST | Family Systems Trauma model.
Read Dr. Sells’ bio.

One thought on “A Family Systems Approach to Treating Intergenerational Trauma

  1. This has given me insight into how intergenerational trauma should be handled and the great effect it would have in resolving the pain, silence, avoidance that breaks family functionality.
    It promotes love, understanding, peace, removes feud and create fresh bonds of harmony, unity and togetherness.

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