Generational Trauma: What is it and how to heal

If you haven’t noticed, there has been an ongoing trend in the movies that have captured the audience’s attention. Movies like Coco, Encanto, Turning Red, and Everything Everywhere All at Once have moved people to tears as many like myself reflect on our own relationships with our families. My paternal grandparents, my parents, and I all live under the same roof but hardly ever talk to each other if it can be avoided. Between my grandparents and first-generation American parents, there are often disagreements about politics and the handling of finances; between my parents and I are arguments over my career and life goals.

Many online commentators have expressed similar reactions and shared their own family stories. So what is it that makes these movies so relatable?

Within a family, it is normal for different generations to have different expectations. Parents may pass down their own traditions and share stories of their hardships with their children, but children, especially those of immigrant parents, ultimately will grow to form their own opinions based on the changing times and their new environment. Eventually, this new generation will think that their parent’s concerns and actions are outdated, while the former believe that their children just don’t understand the world. These differences in the experiences and beliefs of each generation lead to a trauma that scars families and continues to wound future generations.

While trauma may not seem as tangible as the color of our skin or the hand we write, trauma exists and bleeds into many aspects of life. Trauma presents in different and covert forms, such as suspicion towards others, hypervigilance of their surroundings, excessive anxiety, low self-esteem, and other destructive coping mechanisms. Traumatized individuals stuck in their responses of freeze, fight, flight or fright become perceived as normal, leading to further communication problems within families. It is difficult for the new generation to understand how their predecessors have been affected after undergoing horrific experiences such as slavery, racism, war, poverty, or any other harmful situation. At the same time, the generation that was directly traumatized doesn’t realize how their affected views and actions harm their children, who learn their coping mechanisms, become the subject of their parents’ mistrust, and inherit the epigenetic effects of trauma.

Generational trauma, especially within Asian American communities, is often related to cultural trauma as many mourn the loss of their cultural identity. Immigrants and refugees have to cope with the trauma from their experiences in internment camps as well as acts of discrimination, which their descendants continue to experience to this day. Generations before them have to live through periods of war and cultural revolution. With so many generations that have been influenced by trauma, how does one begin to heal?

The process of healing starts with compassion. We must recognize the signs of trauma and open a door for communication, understanding that no one deserves to be hurt but that the generations before us also do not wish to hurt their children. Families can also engage in cultural activities as a form of therapy and to better connect with the generations before them. Being able to talk through our individual trauma and engage with our culture allows the chance to build understanding and trust between different generations. Getting mental health therapy is a good way to address personal trauma. Not all families will be open to mental health treatment, but taking care of our own mental health is necessary before outreaching to our family.

About the author, Winnie Zhou:

I am a Health Career Connection intern working full-time with the IBH department this summer. I am a Chinese American student in my third year at UCSD, majoring in molecular and cell biology and minoring in psychology. In the near future, I plan to work in medicine and health as either a researcher or a physician serving the Asian population. As a child of immigrant parents, I have first-hand experience with how generational trauma can hurt families and how negative influences of trauma can become perceived as being normal within my culture. I chose to write about this topic because I am passionate about preserving culture and advocating for minority rights as I continue on my own journey of healing.




Bith-Melander, P., Chowdhury, N., Jindal, C., & Efird, J. T. (2017). Trauma Affecting Asian-Pacific Islanders in the San Francisco Bay Area. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(9), 1053.

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