Blog

Assessing Intergenerational Trauma

Posted on September 30, 2016

Up to this point in this series, we have been looking at the impact and larger issues associated with intergenerational trauma. In this post, I want to start talking about how we can help clients overcome the impact of this trauma and free themselves from this intergenerational pain. Let’s start by looking at who would assess intergenerational trauma and then some ideas about what the assessment might look like.

Patrick Counselling

The question of who is a tough one for me. It would be easy to say only mental health professionals should do this work, due to its depth and complexity, but like other types of trauma, too many people who need these services are often not ready to engage. That leaves helpers who are in non-therapy positions trying to work through a range of mental health issues.

In my thinking about trauma healing, intergenerational trauma extends our discussion about personal narratives to include family history. The research on intergenerational trauma demonstrates how we carry out family’s story into our own life, in both positives and harmful ways. Following this thinking, I suggest those doing personal narrative work also include family histories as part of the exploration, when they feel it is appropriate for a certain client.

In an ideal world, I would like everyone entering services to be assessed for family trauma history. My struggle is that we already ask so many tough questions that diving into the past increases risks of re-traumatization, and could damage the helping relationship. This is why I believe that if we are not doing therapy or some kind of personal narrative work, we should avoid structured assessments in most situations.

In place of these, professionals in non-therapy positions should pay close attention to any signs or conversation from the client about past pain in the family. Including short questions in an intake such as, “Can you briefly describe some of the strengths and challenges of your family growing up?” might be a good way to gain some insight, and may show the helper that past family trauma could be an issue to address, both through narrative work and a referral to mental health services.

The sad conclusion that I have come to through my research is that we can assume that almost all of the people seeking our services are struggling to some extent with intergenerational trauma. This will differ depending on the population you work with, but since most of us can see this in our own family history, it is pretty safe to assume that some pain from the past is something most people in our programs carry with them. The hope is, if we can help people see the importance of mental health services in relation to intergenerational trauma, that trauma can start being assessed formally and treated in a therapeutic context.

For those doing therapy, the research around intergenerational trauma shows the importance of family mapping. In my own work, before ever hearing the words “intergenerational trauma,” I found mapping a critical part of my clinical assessments, and something that informed my interventions, whether I was doing individual or family work. In these maps, a story of the family emerges, and it is within this story that the client’s personal narrative develops.

Beyond just an assessment, family maps also can be effectively integrated into the actual treatment, and can provide the therapist with an opportunity to discuss intergenerational trauma with the client. This helps put current struggles into a historical perspective, and can build motivation around doing the tough work often required of clients working through traumatic experiences. In addition, I’ve also found family maps effective in demonstrating how substance abuse and other behaviors impacting the client have a family origin. This gave me the ability to talk with clients about how their own healing journey can help prevent these behaviors from going on to the next generation.

These are my thoughts, but I would really love to hear yours as well. If you have any thoughts or are assessing intergenerational trauma, please share in the comment section. We are all at the edge of this research, so learning from one another is critical!

5 responses to “Assessing Intergenerational Trauma”

  1. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    One hindrance to family mapping is that some families don’t share histories. Mapping may be unreliable or difficult because of a habit of silence. For whatever reason, there may be lacunae in the family story. A parent may have had experiences that remain hidden even from the spouse, and then, from the children. Some may need to undertake an easy search for more information; some may have to make of it a major research project.

  2. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    One hindrance to family mapping is that some families don’t share histories. Mapping may be unreliable or difficult because of a habit of silence. For whatever reason, there may be lacunae in the family story. A parent may have had experiences that remain hidden even from the spouse, and then, from the children. Some may need to undertake an easy search for more information; some may have to make of it a major research project.

  3. Sharon Vernon says:

    I agree with the comment above. This being said, I think it is still a good idea to explore. Some may be resistant; however, with gentle encouragement that our history plays a part in who we are, the client might be open to pursuing. Of course, the therapist/helper needs to be mindful that looking at past history might be more traumatizing. The map is a starting place to gather info about the client. It’s up to the client whether to go down that road.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Welcome to My Website

Get my new book, Heart Rate Variability: Using Biometrics to Improve Outcomes in Trauma-Informed Organizations for free!

Sign up for my email list and also receive updates on Optimal HRV, Trauma-Informed Lens Podcast, blogs, and other updates.