What is Intergenerational Trauma?

The backs of two people, one person leaning their head on the other's shoulder
Withering flowers in a glass plate surrounded by the words like trauma, abuse, PTSD, anger, fear, etc.

You may have heard the term “intergenerational trauma” being thrown around a lot in the last year. And even if not, you’ve likely heard of some of these 2022 movies and TV shows in which intergenerational trauma was a major theme: "Everything Everywhere All at Once," "The Whale" and "Encanto." Last year was the year that intergenerational trauma took the spotlight in Hollywood. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t always been around (it has), but 2022 was the year that intergenerational trauma went mainstream.  

But what is intergenerational trauma? Intergenerational trauma, also called “generational trauma” or “transgenerational trauma,” is defined by the American Psychological Association as: “a phenomenon in which the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event show adverse emotional and behavioral reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself.” 

For example, a person who is a survivor of genocide may be more likely to experience feelings of anxiety or fear, which often results in negative coping behaviors, such as (but not limited to) hoarding food or becoming emotionally distant or unavailable. This person’s child sees the way their parent behaves, and as they grow up may adopt similar unhealthy coping methods or fears even though they never experienced genocide themselves. 

Obviously, not everyone has to go through cultural genocide to experience trauma. Trauma is complex and there are many kinds of it. Anyone can experience intergenerational trauma, but people that are a part of marginalized communities (e.g., BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and people of low socioeconomic status) are particularly vulnerable.

If we view media as a reflection of society and our communities, then it’s evident that many of us can relate to the struggles of intergenerational trauma. I believe that this is part of the reason for the success of the movies I listed above. In "Everything Everywhere All at Once," we see the protagonist’s turbulent relationship with her father lead to a strained relationship with her daughter. In "The Whale," our protagonist is an emotionally distant father because of anti-LGBTQIA+ prejudice. In "Encanto," the family matriarch’s overbearing iron grip on her family is explained by her past trauma: witnessing her husband’s murder. 

These movies and the themes they explore are very relatable. They explore reasons for why parents or family members might act in hurtful ways. They explain that parents are just normal people trying their best. And most importantly, they explain that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. 

The first time I watched "Encanto," I identified strongly with Mirabel, the protagonist. I felt that Abuela’s treatment of Mirabel, her only grandchild without a unique gift, was unjust. I saw the Madrigal family as a reflection of my own family. When Abuela’s past was revealed, I was as devastated as I had been frustrated. It didn’t forgive her actions, but it more than explained them. And in reflecting on myself, I realized that if I can understand Abuela, I can begin to try to understand my relationship with my own grandmother and parents. 

Did you also find one of these stories deeply relatable? Or do you just enjoy stories about complex human relationships? If so, check out some of these movies, TV series and books that feature intergenerational trauma as a main theme. 

Movies and TV Series