Intergenerational Trauma or Generational Resiliency?
Posted on September 9, 2016
I’ve had a number of great discussions over the last week with folks about the research on intergenerational trauma. Many of you have had a similar response to the one I had when I first dove into this subject.REALLY?!
Our clients are already struggling so much with so many things, and now we have to add trauma experienced by two previous generations to that list? Come on science, give us a break!
While the concept of intergenerational trauma can be extremely depressing and can feel like a harsh strike against a person before they are even born, there is an evolutionary advantage that can be gained through this process. I always have to remind myself that the reality facing most people in modern first-world countries is vastly different from the reality facing the vast majority of human beings throughout our existence. Today, we can view intergenerational trauma as a challenge to be overcome, but historically it was a key component in our survival as a species.
Quick Note: When I talk about the economic mobility of modern societies, I am not minimizing the limiting role of class, race, and culture experienced by many in these societies, including Western countries. The powerful still have vastly greater opportunity for continued success. Please know I’m only trying to make a historical comparison here, and in no way overlooking the need for powerful reforms to our economic system.
For most of our history, the reality facing one generation was almost identical to previous generations. Few societies provided any opportunity for upward mobility, and families could exist for centuries without ever thinking about the possibility that the future would be better for their children. Even with all the challenges of class in our modern society, we still live in a unique time of economic opportunity (and peril), where one generation can experience a very different class and economic reality than the previous one.
In the past, the challenges of our parents and grandparents were likely to be our challenges as well. For the vast majority, this meant surviving violence, predators, poverty, hunger, and threats of disease. The traumas of parents and grandparents were lessons for future generations, and if those lessons could be passed genetically before birth, it increased the likelihood of survival for the child. This generational resiliency, as I like to call it, served humans incredibly well for millenniums.
Only in the last couple of centuries has the rigid class systems given way (at least in many countries) to more fluid social structures, where people can create better, or worse, economic situations for themselves and their families in just a few years. It is this opportunity for economic betterment where the dark side of intergenerational trauma comes into play. To demonstrate this, let’s look at a group that taught me so much early in my career, teenage gang members.
The young men I worked with were all from impoverished neighborhoods plagued by violence and addiction (during the crack epidemic of the 90s). They basically grew up in a war zone, where their friends and family were dying in record numbers, they saw little economic opportunity outside the drug trade, and the systems, including schools, provided to their communities were failing and underfunded. While I started working with the community at the peak of this violence, poverty and racism had kept these communities in a constant state of survival for generations. Crack cocaine was the spark that turned this historical pain and suffering into violence and high rates of addiction. Let’s just state the obvious – the fact that this reality existed in such a wealthy country is a systematic failure, and not a reflection on the individuals in this community.
A baby born into this community had to be equipped for survival. The racism and poverty experienced by previous generations created a hyperaroused biology that was always looking for the next sign of danger. This biology was incredibly useful, as most of these kids joined gangs in search for belonging, safety, and economic opportunity. Thanks to the genetic resiliency, these young men survived in an environment that those born into comfortable and safe homes in successful communities may never have survived.
When genetic expression is passed from generation to generation, it does not take into account that this situation can change. Again, this was not the reality throughout most of our history. The difference today is that there are opportunities for a better life, no matter how small those opportunities seem. The neighborhoods that most of my clients came from were within eyesight of skyscrapers, and just a few miles from million-dollar mansions. They went to school where they learned about colleges and were given statistics about the economic value of high school and college diplomas. History books glorified those who rose to great heights out of situations just as desperate as the ones they were facing, and the very rare instance of rap stars and sports heroes achieving great wealth provide some proof that life could be better.
While the odds were stacked so heavily against them, a very small minority of kids made it out and into the middle or upper class. Here lies the tragedy of intergenerational trauma. In centuries past, there were no paths to better lives (with very few exceptions), so the impact of this passing of experience through genetics helped one be better equipped to survive in the situation facing their family. Today, that same survival biology makes it difficult to succeed in traditional academic and employment settings. So while my clients had a biological structure that increased survival in their violent neighborhoods, this same biology struggled greatly in activities that would enable them to move out of this situation.
This is one more example of how a society that allows high rate of poverty, homelessness, and income inequality is stealing the future away from generation after generation. Our story is far from over. Biology isn’t destiny, and with the right support and set of opportunities, 98% of our DNA can be expressed differently, our brain structure can change, and the genetics we pass to our children can free them from the past suffering experienced by previous generations.
My question this week is about the clients you serve. Thinking of their family history, how do you think they gain strength from the struggles of their ancestors?