Intergenerational Trauma

Unprocessed trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. This can occur in families, and it can have a huge collective effect on society as a whole.

Resmaa Menakem is a Black trauma therapist who is devoted to educating about white body supremacy and working with individuals and systems to unpack systemic trauma. In his work, he calls attention to the body when he speaks of racism, because as is the case with all trauma, it lives in our bodies. Healing needs to happen in part through processing the pain in our bodies.

In his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies Menakem speaks of intergenerational trauma:

All of this suggests that one of the best things each of us can do—not only for ourselves, but also for our children and grandchildren—is to metabolize our pain and heal our trauma. When we heal and make more room for growth in our nervous systems, we have a better chance of spreading our emotional health to our descendants, via healthy DNA expression. In contrast, when we don’t address our trauma, we may pass it on to future generations, along with some of our fear, constriction, and dirty pain.” (2017)

In regards to pain, he defines it either as clean or dirty. The following are related excerpts from his book:

I tell clients there are two kinds of pain: clean pain and dirty pain. Clean pain is pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth…Clean pain hurts like hell. But it enables our bodies to grow through our difficulties, develop nuanced skills, and mend our trauma. In this process, the body metabolizes clean pain. The body can then settle; more room for growth is created in its nervous system; and the self becomes freer and more capable, because it now has access to energy that was previously protected, bound, and constricted…Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain. They also create more of it for themselves and others. (2017)

Menakem suggests that trauma is passed down from generations to generations a few different ways:

  • Through family behaviour
  • Through traumatized systems that are unsafe and abusive, and/or cultural norms of a society
  • Through our genetics. Research suggests that trauma can be passed down through our DNA

We see the reality of intergenerational trauma very clearly with the impact of colonization on Indigenous people. Today, many people continue to be greatly impacted by this long-standing and ongoing trauma.

Likewise, the trauma of slavery in the US and Canada has, over centuries, morphed into the trauma of an insidious systemic racism that many, including the Black Lives Matter movement, are working to dismantle.


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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