Addressing Generational Trauma

“Trauma is an event that significantly impacts how an individual navigates the world. If that person is or becomes a parent, they can go on to teach the way they navigate the world to their children, and we see the effects of trauma passed down within families and communities.”

Ashlei Petion, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Counseling at Nova Southeastern University

The history of the world is, in one reading, a history of trauma. Political conflicts tear apart families. Refugees escape persecution only to encounter it on new soil, in different forms. Pernicious policies reinforce class divides and thwart social mobility. The right to personhood must be fought for over and over. Ignorance, too frequently, reigns. Patterns of abuse recreate themselves. 

Trauma has a long half-life. It sometimes even outlives those who first experience it. That’s part of the idea behind generational trauma, which posits that the echoes of trauma can be passed on from generation to generation. While still a relatively young idea, when placed in the long history of cognitive science, it’s particularly relevant to life in America today, and counselors and their clients are finding breakthroughs in addressing this type of trauma through a collective, rather than purely individual, lens.  

Read on to learn more about the origins of generational trauma and how counselors are helping to address it.

Meet the Expert: Ashlei Petion, PhD, LPC, NCC

Dr. Ashlei Petion is an assistant professor in the Nova Southeastern University Department of Counseling. She earned her PhD in counselor education and practice from Georgia State University and her MA in counselor education from the University of Central Florida, specializing in clinical mental health counseling. She is a board-certified licensed professional counselor and MFT.

Dr. Petion has many years of experience in the mental health profession, ranging from the National Suicide Hotline and crisis centers to community- and school-based mental healthcare. Primarily, her clinical expertise involves working with teens, young adults, and their families to promote healthy familial relationships that contribute to healthy, strong communities. Her research focuses on generational trauma and healing in Black communities, primarily within qualitative and mixed methodology frameworks. 

Dr. Petion is a two-time NBCC Minority Fellow, a former CSI Intern, and an ACA graduate student representative to the Governing Council, and currently serves as the assistant editor of CSI’s Exemplar as well as AMCD’s vice president of women’s concerns.

The Origins of Generational Trauma

Generational trauma can have historical, collective, or interpersonal origins. Consider how the history of chattel slavery in the US deeply impacts the way African Americans interact with American society; how rampant police brutality psychologically or vicariously traumatizes people of color even when it hasn’t physically; and how the wounds of any type of trauma are so easily passed down through a family. While generational trauma was first recognized in the children of Holocaust survivors, it’s also been observed in the descendants of slaves, indigenous peoples, veterans, survivors of abuse, and refugees.

“Anyone and everyone who experiences an individual or collective trauma is susceptible to generational trauma,” Dr. Petion says. “It can manifest in different types of people, and in many different contexts.”

Some researchers believe trauma can be transmitted epigenetically—through changes in gene expression—but others believe there is not enough conclusive evidence beyond the environmental and cultural transmission of trauma between generations. The epigenetic research is still relatively young, and the data sets are notoriously small: each person and group’s trauma is different, as is their family. But the aspect of social transmission, as well as the effects of trauma itself, are real and undisputed. 

“Trauma is an event that significantly impacts how an individual navigates the world,” Dr. Petion says. “If that person is or becomes a parent, they can go on to teach the way they navigate the world to their children, and we see the effects of trauma passed down within families and communities.”

Diagnosing and Treating Generational Trauma

While there is a difference in transmission, generational trauma can look much like individual trauma in its expression. Some of its symptoms include many of those found in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): hypervigilance, avoidant behavior, depression, anxiety, and flashbacks. But generational trauma doesn’t have an official diagnosis in the DSM-5 nor a standardized formal assessment for it. 

“We don’t yet have a diagnosis that really encompasses the collective effect of trauma,” Dr. Petion says. “It’s hard to take a family, or a lineage, and say these people have generational trauma. Our society, our method of counseling, and our medical system are still very based around the individual.”

The academic literature on generational trauma is still budding and new. Anything couched as best practice for its treatment could be stretching the term. However, some treatments do have empirical support. One such method is the construction and analysis of genograms (i.e., family trees), where individuals and their families can begin to identify patterns of trauma, and other relevant mental health symptomology, visually. 

“It can motivate people to interrupt the cycle,” Dr. Petion says. “You see yourself on the tree, and you see your kids, and you’re thinking, I see what’s going on up here, and I want to slow that down, and interrupt this process.”

Another method of addressing generational trauma is through bibliotherapy, which involves using books, films, podcasts, and other forms of media that highlight the effects of generational trauma in therapeutic interventions. They can help externalize difficult issues and foster conversation. Dr. Petion points to the Disney film Encanto as a particularly useful example. The film doesn’t name generational trauma specifically, but it does personify it, and using it in therapeutic interventions allows clients to connect with the material and unpack how it applies to them personally and familially. 

Both bibliotherapy and genograms can be effective in individual settings, but they can also be used in collective interventions. Connecting people in group settings has proven effective regarding generational therapy. Even simply meeting as a group and talking can be helpful. 

“We know that generational trauma is a collective phenomenon, so we acknowledge that interventions must take place on a relational level as well as an individual one,” Dr. Petion says. 

“Just holding space to talk about generational trauma ignites a fire in people to want to do better, and to want to disrupt harmful patterns of trauma.”

The Future of Generational Trauma

The activating event of generational trauma may be far in the past, and the trauma experienced could be vicarious, but generational trauma is no less real than its individual counterpart. Naming it, and raising awareness of it, is an important step forward. The blamelessness that comes with an acknowledgment of one’s generational trauma can have important and lasting effects. But counselors need to go further, and some continuing professional education can help. 

“It’s important we understand how individuals experience trauma, but also lean into relational impacts of trauma,” Dr. Petion says. “It can be helpful to work on psychoeducation as it relates to what’s going on in our bodies, minds, and relationships following trauma and throughout that experience, and also how we communicate with others about our healing.”

Generational trauma can sometimes seem bogged down by deficit-based language, steeped as it is in concepts of victimhood and powerlessness. But Dr. Petion and other counselors are quick to point out that if trauma can be passed down through generations, so can resilience. The strength-based language of survivorship, of overcoming adversity and tragedy, plays an important role in healing. At the same time, however, no one should be rushed through that process. 

“When we see an individual in our office who has experienced a trauma—whether it be individual, historic, or collective—we know that they have the capacity to heal from that trauma, and be resilient at some point,” Dr. Petion says. “But the timeline and the healing journey will differ from individual to individual. We don’t want to push someone who’s experienced a trauma on Monday to tap into resilience by Friday.”

The future of generational trauma is an exciting avenue of research. As the concept entrenches itself further in the mainstream, more data can be collected, and more studies performed. Treatments will improve. And even if the DSM isn’t forthright with issuing an official diagnosis for generational trauma, the hope is that more collective-based viewpoints will spread throughout counseling and mental health. 

“As humans, we don’t exist in a vacuum,” Dr. Petion says. “We are part of so many different systems and connections and relationships. It’d be nice to see that collective approach reflected in the work we do.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog


Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2020, he’s written extensively about how counselors and other behavioral health professionals are working to address the nation’s mental health and substance use crises, with a particular focus on community-driven and interdisciplinary approaches. His articles have included detailed interviews with leaders and subject matter experts from the American Counseling Association (ACA), the American Mental Health Counselor Association (AMHCA), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).