Intergenerational & Transgenerational Trauma from Racism

Intergenerational & Transgenerational Trauma from Racism

In the early 2000s, Brent Bezo, a student in the doctoral psychology program at Carleton University in Ottawa, was living with his wife in Ukraine when they began picking up on subtle notes of resentment and skepticism from the native population. In his conversations with the locals, Bezo specifically remembers detecting references to the Holodomor, a historical event in the early 1930s that ended with millions of Ukrainians starving to death. Many considered it to be a deliberate act of genocide coordinated by Stalin’s regime.

Bezo began to wonder how much of an impact this horrific historical event would have on our current generation. He decided to conduct a qualitative investigation using 45 volunteers from three different generations; the survivors of this tragic event as well as their children and grandchildren. His findings, published in Social Science & Medicine in 2015, showed that each generation had inherited a lack of trust from the one before. Certain behaviors, including anxiety, embarrassment, food hoarding, and overeating, were passed on from one generation to the next.

This is just one study in a growing body of research that looks at how multiple generations have been affected by large-scale cultural and historical suffering. Researchers are now studying the effects of historically traumatic events, including the systematic mass murders of millions during the Holocaust, the involuntary enslavement of African-Americans, and the forced migration of Native Americans. They are finding that the transgenerational repercussions span far beyond the mental effects into familial, social, and cultural expressions as well.

Treatment for Transgenerational Trauma

While more research is needed, clinicians are developing effective interventions based on current findings.

For instance, family therapists working with Native American tribes in Canada and the United States help prevent early substance use by improving family communications and reducing family conflicts.

Other clinicians have good outcomes by using a “survival genogram,” which is like a pictorial version of a family tree that highlights family relationships, health, and psychological patterns. This helps children and grandchildren of survivors explore their ancestral life lessons to help them move forward in their current lives.

Many clinicians are still encouraging their clients to use self-care practices such as mindfulness and exercise to reduce potential triggers.

Without question addressing present-day traumas like racism related to original events is key to helping new generations heal and move on. Therapy can guide people in using coping tools and learning better communication to help them on their healing journey.

If you or someone you know is suffering from transgenerational trauma from racism and would like to explore treatment options, please get in touch. I would be more than happy to discuss how I may be able to help.


Samuel Byndom, PhD

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