What is Transgenerational Trauma?

Written by Nina Womack

In 2015, the United Nations Member States created an urgent call to action for all countries to implement strategies to improve health and education, reduce inequality, poverty, and spur economic growth while reducing climate change by the year 2030.

The U.N. General Assembly has also proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent (resolution 68/237) to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to ensuring that people of African descent have full and equal participation in all aspects of our society’s economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.

It has long been argued that African Americans have been profoundly affected by slavery and its aftermath (Lerner and Hardy 1995; Pinderhughes 1990; Pouissant and Alexander 2000; Loury 2002; Price et al. 2008). In fact, African enslavement bears one of humanity’s most shameful scars. Spanning over 40,000 voyages from the Coast of Africa, millions of human cargo were captured and unwillingly shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. Five percent of enslaved Africans were sent to North America, the rest were shipped to the Caribbean and South America.


The violent, dehumanizing activities that Europeans performed such as forced labor, torturing, raping, and pillaging people of African descent, even burning them alive and hanging them for public view are horrors so disturbing and uncomfortable to face that most of society lives in a collective state of denial as an avoidance-based coping mechanism.

Recent research has uncovered important findings that Transgenerational trauma may be transferred from primary trauma survivors to their offspring up to four generations via complex, post-traumatic stress disorders caused by changes in DNA. 

This area of research has advanced dramatically within the past five years and since then, researchers are fervently examining anxiety, depression and complex PTSD in trauma survivors and their offspring. When studying about transgenerational trauma, one will discover the word “epigenetics‘ which is the study of the biological mechanisms that can switch genes on and off which plays a major part in a human’s development. 


Recent epigenetic studies have shown that stress, socio-economic deprivation, racism and other traumatic experiences of our former ancestors can play a part in turning on or off certain genes in our DNA. Recent research in mice and humans have demonstrated that trauma can be passed on to generations through coding alterations in DNA.

One of the first articles to examine the effects of intergenerational trauma appeared in 1966, when Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, and her colleagues documented high rates of psychological distress among children of Holocaust survivors (Canada’s Mental Health, Vol. 14). Holocaust survivors and their children are the most widely studied group over the longest period of time. Goodman (2013) defines transgenerational trauma (also called intergenerational, multigenerational, or historical trauma) is defined as a disbursement of trauma from one generation to another. 

Although, there hasn’t been a massive amount of research performed on trauma survivors of African descent, there has been much research on other traumatized populations that offer robust proof that the unhealed, traumatic effects of slavery as a form of intergenerational trauma has brought forth significant long-term health, psychological and social impacts on the African diaspora’s culture, identity and souls.


Some common events that trigger PTSD are:

  • Wartime trauma
  • Childhood abuse
  • Sexual assault or abuse
  • Physical violence
  • Threats with a weapon
  • Vehicle collision
  • Airplane crash
  • Fire
  • Life-threatening illness
  • Traumatic injury
  • Natural disaster
  • Terrorist attack
  • Kidnapping


From what we know of history, most of the African slaves who were forcibly migrated to the Americas experienced adverse traumatic events mentioned above, for example, wartime trauma, sexual and physical abuse, threats with a weapon, kidnapping, and shaming.


Presently, evidence of this trauma-plagued existence in modern African American populations are displayed in the psychosocial outcomes such as; health disparities, low self-esteem, high rates of poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, hyperarousal, irritability, depression, detachment, colorism, beatings as discipline within families, poor school achievement, black-on-black violence and displacement of trauma through music and ritual.


Similarly, in the descendants of slave owners, research has identified manifested consequences, such as the subconscious white privilege attitude, distorted authenticity, indifference to the plight of others, systemic and institutional racism, denial of slavery, justification for black inferiority and white supremacy, and the displacement of fears and anxieties onto blacks.


Today, there are an estimated 45 million people trapped in some form of slavery today. More than a quarter of slaves are children.In order to effectively combat these current social ills affecting our world today such as; human trafficking, mass incarceration, immigration detention and labor exploitation, we must first develop a deeper understanding of the complex symptoms associated with compounded, multigenerational trauma and strive to enforce a collective healing movement.