How generational trauma affects students (and how to support them)

8 min read
August 18, 2022

Generational trauma (also sometimes called intergenerational or transgenerational trauma) is a term that is used to describe the impact of a traumatic experience, not only on one generation but on subsequent generations after the event. In order to best support our students’ health and well-being, acknowledging and addressing the impact of generational trauma is necessary and urgent.

What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma is a kind of trauma that isn’t just experienced by one person but extends from one generation to the next. “It can be silent, covert, and undefined, surfacing through nuances and inadvertently taught or implied throughout someone’s life from an early age onward,” says licensed clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator Melanie English, PhD*.*

For example, a great grandmother who was placed in a concentration camp in Germany may have learned to cope by “cutting off” her emotions. Because of this, this grandmother may interact with her family in an emotionally distant fashion. The transmission of the historical trauma may begin to negatively affect her grandchildren and her grandchildren’s children, etc., leading to generations of emotional distance, defensive behaviors around expression of emotions, and denial.

Here are some other ways that generational trauma can show up in families:

  • A family might seem emotionally numb or have strong hesitancies about discussing feelings
  • A family might see discussing feelings as a sign of weakness
  • Another family might have trust issues with “outsiders” and seem continually conflictual
  • Some families might seem anxious and overly protective of their children or family members, even when there is no threat of danger

Who can experience generational trauma?

Anyone can feel the effects of generational trauma. However, there are particular groups that are more susceptible due to history, such as descendants of Holocaust survivors, African Americans in the U.S. and around the world, children of immigrants and people in countries that have endured years, even decades, of war, etc. Additionally, domestic violence, sexual assault or sexual abuse, and hate crimes are other acts that can result in generational trauma.

What does generational trauma look like?

Generational trauma can present in hyper-vigilance, a sense of a shortened future, mistrust, aloofness, high anxiety, depression, panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, a sensitive fight or flight response, and issues with self-esteem and self-confidence. Family members who have suffered traumatic events may also have symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

For school-age children it is important to know that many signs and symptoms are present when children are in the academic setting. Undealt-with trauma can manifest itself by children avoiding school, having difficulty focusing, dropping out of school, decrease in grades and test scores, and behavioral challenges such as suspensions and expulsions.

What teachers can do to help their students

In the words of Bessel Van der Kolk (author of “The Body Keeps the Score”), the ability to feel safe is “probably the most important aspect of mental health”.  When we grow up with family dynamics that make us feel unsafe and unvalidated in our feelings and experiences, we can struggle to move past our personal and familial trauma. Teachers can help students by allowing them to experience what is known as felt safety, which is an empathetic relationship based on someone’s unconditional acceptance of the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

There are no easy answers, but generational trauma can be resolved if a holistic, intense intervention is put in place. This often involves individual therapy, though group/family therapy is another option. Professional help, along with listening to your students and letting them know that you are someone they can come to talk about their experiences with generational trauma, is key in making sure students feel safe in our classrooms.

Learn more about generational trauma here:

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