Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: It is Time to Worry

Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: It is Time to Worry

Karen Gross 30/10/2020 6
Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: It is Time to Worry
I remember the moment exactly. I was entering St. Johns College at the University of British Columbia, CA in 2018.

I was a visiting faculty member in residence and as I walked into the lobby my first day, I saw a group of students. I introduced myself and shared how delighted I was to be there. They asked about my area of expertise and where I'd be teaching. I mentioned the law school and added that I specialized in trauma.

Then came the question, the one I remember so distinctly. "What do you think about the epigenetic intergenerational transmission of trauma?" I was taken aback. It was not a topic of much discussion in the US. It was not a topic I had studied or thought about. Yet, it was a topic at the forefront of these students' minds. I asked for a deeper explanation of the question and they all responded, noting the plight of the First Nations (their equivalent of our Native Americans). I referenced cultural transmission of trauma based on behavioral patterns; they observes that yes, that mattered but they were referencing new research on biological transmission of trauma, particularly among traumatized peoples.

And so it began.

Since that time, I have both spoken and written about this topic -- the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next -- although of late the topic has fallen off my radar screen. I have noted the new research in this field and while there remains much research to be done, there is strong evidence that, indeed, trauma does get transmitted from one generation to the next biologically -- meaning that one generation literally passes trauma on to the next. While it does not appear that the transmission is through DNA, it is transmitted nonetheless. The groups studied include Holocaust survivor families, families in war torn nations and populations like Black Americans who have been subjected to decades (centuries) of racism.

For some research in this area, see here.

It was in this context that I read the amazing book by Donna Jackson Nakazawa titled The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine. It was published by Ballantine Books in January of 2020. Her books addresses microglia, cells that previously had been viewed as akin to brain garbage cleaners. But, her research and those of others showed that these tiny cells have much more to do than clean our brains. They can become overactive (including by trauma) and are sadly contributors to much of the trauma symptomology that we witness. Her book, using concrete examples, shows how these microglial cells can be "tamed" and in that way, return to their status as "angels."

For a description of her work, see here

And here's the kicker for our purposes, it seems based on early research that microglial cell patterns from trauma can be epigenetically transmitted to the next generation.

See here and here

The Focus on the Trauma of the Pandemic on Students

Now, fast forward several months to the Pandemic. In that context, I have written at length (including a new book titled Trauma Doesn't Stop at the School Door (TCPress June 2020)) on the impact of trauma on students in the educational context. I have suggested repeatedly that the Pandemic is traumatic for young people (adults too). I have noted that school closures and reopenings, economic uncertainty, racial and ethnic tensions, family dysfunction, food scarcity and homelessness all contribute to trauma that children are experiencing. And, I have written about how trauma and its symptomology affect learning and psychosocial development. I have worked with schools and organizations on strategies to ameliorate the trauma -- as trauma never actually goes away. I have developed tools that can be used to enable children to get their autonomic nervous systems under control so they can open neural pathways to enable learning.

See for example:

The rising rates of COVID made me acutely aware of the need to pay attention now to the impact this virus is having on our children. I have been concerned about educational equity divides, mental health and our capacity to serve all students in need, and the difficulty of transitions (schools opening; closing; reopening; closing) on young people. (True, educators are struggling with primary, secondary and vicarious trauma.) I have been imploring educators to create trauma responsive situations. Now. I am not alone in my pleas.

Somehow, until two articles flashed across my screen, the intergenerational transmission of truama had not been a topic I have talked about or written about or shared about recently. Here are the two articles that got me back to thinking about the impact of the Pandemic on the next generation --- not just this generation of students on whom I have focussed.

See here and here.

The Need to Focus on Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Due to COVID

With the realization that trauma is affecting our students of all ages and stages, we could be remiss if we did not think about the impact of the Pandemic on the next generation -- the children born to those living in and through the Pandemic.

At one level, there will be cultural shifts and societal shifts because of COVID. In addition to concerns about death and dying and "long hauler survivors," we will have changes across the way we operate as a society. Education will change. Employment will change. The use of the Internet and remote working/learning will change. The need for vaccines and the need for better preparation will exist. We will also need to address the Pandemic's mental health impact with the consequences of social distancing and mask wearing.

To date, I have not seen much written on the wider issues of how the Pandemic will change all of us and future generations, except in the most general of ways. Perhaps folks have books underway.

But, what we have not addressed at any length or in any detail is the possibility (the likelihood in fact) that the Pandemic will affect future generations through epigenetic transmission. And, worse yet, what are we doing to deal with and prepare for this eventuality?

We know there are ways of ameliorating trauma symptomology. To be sure, we do not yet have enough scientific data to know whether adverse childhood experiences and other measures of trauma potentiality can be mitigated effectively short and longer term and epigenetically through positive childhood experiences and positive adult experiences and other possible interventions now on the horizon and to be created. This research is still being conducted.

But we know this much: trauma can be passed forward, not just culturally but intergenerationally through epigenetic. Why ignore this potentiality? Instead, we need to redouble our efforts to address trauma now to weaken the prospective transmission into the next generation. We know, if we are alert to the science, that the possibility exists to curb trauma symptomology.

Yes, one reason to use it and use it now is to help THIS generation thrive. We need this generation to be educated and ready to enter the workforce and contribute to their communities, our economy and our Democracy (with a capital D). But, that is not enough of a reason, as important a reason as it is.

We Ignore the Future: Why?

Generally speaking, we aren't long term future focused on societal issues. That's a sad reality.

Yet, we need to focus on trauma amelioration to protect the next generation, to limit the intergenerational transmission of trauma. The early research shows us the power of epigentetics. So does the research on microglial cells. We need to take this literature as a clarion call to protect not just current individuals but those who will inhabit our earth prospectively.

It may sound like a long range issue and in some senses it is. But in that sense it is like climate change. Because the change occurs over time, it gets less attention than issues that are currently pressing. And, by the time we see the need to focus on climate change or trauma, the window to implement change is closing. Indeed, our brains are not wired to reflect on change way way off into the future -- a future of which we may not be a part. See here

Think about this example: retirement planning. We aren't good at it because for those needing to plan, it seems a long long way off. And, by the time we are close to retirement, the harder it is to generate the needed resources. See here

Now What?

We need to pay attention to what we have not paid attention to in the past and see the consequences of not paying attention. Climate change is but one example. Not taking care of our finances is another. Not taking care of present trauma is another.

It is not too late. The Pandemic is not over. And, its affect on us will not be short-term. So, let's start now to make good on the adage that we need to make sure the next generation is in good hands. That starts with helping all those now experiencing trauma from COVID to address that trauma and its symptomology. That's no small task and requires many pieces including more mental health professionals, more trauma trained individuals, more trauma responsive institutions. It requires that we take trauma seriously and not as a fad or an attempt to coddle the weak.

These steps matter: for those affected now and for those yet to come.

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  • Victoria Hansler

    Trauma victims lack support !

  • Vincent Stones

    Many people will experience trauma because of COVID. Losing a family member or a job can lead to depression.

  • Alex Runnerson

    Thoughtful post

  • Henry King

    It's painful... I wish we could help more victims...

  • Ronald P

    Thanks for sharing all these links and resources

  • Kumar Mohit


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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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