Can Trauma Be Inherited?

It might seem that the intergenerational transmission of trauma from parent to child occurs as a result of abuse or neglect, but this is not always true. Trauma can also be passed from parent to child through changes in gene expression. This phenomenon is known as the epigenetic transmission of trauma. Epigenetic changes in gene function can be given to offspring. People with a history of extreme trauma may have epigenetic changes, likely due to extreme stress.

We Can Inherit Trauma from Our Parents

Research conducted on children of Holocaust survivors shows that those kids could inherit the traumatic rememberings of their parents. The evidence that validates this is quite compelling. Moreover, some offspring of Holocaust survivors have been known to have genocide-themed nightmares and anxiety. Although some may argue that the children received Holocaust imagery through shared stories and word-of-mouth narratives, it does not account for their increased vulnerability to stress-related mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex trauma disorder (C-PTSD).

While it may be more challenging to prove that traumatic memories can be inherited, we do know that psychological stress can trigger the nervous system and affect gene expression patterns. Furthermore, the likelihood of developing PTSD and C-PTSD is passed down to children through an epigenetic route.

Symptoms can occur without a history of trauma

Trauma can be inherited without there being difficult family circumstances. A child can develop depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other stress-related issues from an inherited vulnerability, not a direct trauma. On the one hand, perfect parenting and a stress-free living environment are not required for a child to be healthy and secure. The flip side, though, is that some kids can inherit trauma even with a gentle and compassionate upbringing. Indeed, a child can inherit trauma symptoms, including anxiety and nightmares, without being exposed to trauma.

Epigenetic changes can lead to positive outcomes

The news that trauma can be passed on to children despite there being good parenting may sound disappointing. However, epigenetics can also create changes in a positive way, too. When we are fed proper nutrition and are brought up in a loving and nurturing environment, favorable epigenetic changes can occur over time. 

What we currently know from research into epigenetics as it relates to the transmission of trauma from generation to generation is that parents have at least some influence on their children’s ability to be calm and to tolerate and bounce back from stress. By providing them a loving and nurturing environment, you can decrease the intensity of any inherited trauma. Each succeeding generation can then whittle away at the long-term effects of trauma through consistently being loving and nurturing parents. The cycle can be stopped, and trauma need not continue from one generation to the next.

Whatever the cause of your trauma, anxiety, depression, or another mental health challenge, you can turn to a knowledgeable and experienced trauma therapist in Palatine, IL for help managing it. To find out more, reach out to a therapist.

Thanks to Lotus Wellness Center for their insight into counseling and trauma.