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What do you need to know about Intergenerational Trauma in Asian American Mental Health

We wanted to dedicate a blog specifically to intergenerational trauma, which is trauma (or pain) that gets passed down from the generation who experienced it to the following generations. We believe that discussing intergenerational trauma is necessary in our support of Asian American communities, as many have experienced political conflict, war, oppression, economic turmoil, or the fear of a refugee fleeing violence and danger. The trauma that these grandparents and parents experienced can then be passed down.

How is it passed down?

Trauma can impact a caregiver’s parenting style or behavior. For example, many Southeast Asian grandparents and parents experienced war trauma (e.g., the Viet Nam War), and that trauma can become intergenerational when those feelings of hurt, pain, or fear are passed down to their grandchildren and children. Parents who are still processing their own emotional pain may not be available to care for their children’s emotional needs. They might isolate themselves when they are feeling pain, or they might be irritable and impatient with their child when they are requesting assistance. Parents might also unintentionally minimize their children’s feelings (in comparison to their own history of pain) or expect them to handle more responsibility than is age-appropriate. Many young Southeast Asian Americans have heard comments, such as “I went to school during a war. Why are you having trouble?” or “I escaped to give you a better opportunity. You should not be struggling.” While these comments may come from a place of misunderstanding and a hope for their children to have better lives, they can still be hurtful.

What is the impact?

Intergenerational trauma can have both short-term and long-term impacts on children. Children mirror the coping strategies of their parents and caregivers, so they may learn that keeping quiet about their feelings is the only way to cope. They also learn relationship patterns through interacting with their parents. Many parents tell their children the difficult past they endured in order to motivate their children to succeed. However, this can negatively impact children, who become accustomed to hearing other people’s pain without being able to address their own. To illustrate, here’s a brief story from a 25-year-old second-generation Vietnamese woman. 

“My mom and my older sister left Viet Nam in the 1980s, after the war. As a child, she would often tell me how she and my sister went hungry, and how I was lucky that I never had to worry about food. She would also tell me about the constant fear of violence and danger that she experienced just going about her daily life. My problems could never compare, so I never told her about my feelings and troubles.”

As children grow older, they may feel like their emotions are a burden on their parents and other people, or that they are responsible for their parents’ or others’ emotional wellbeing. This can look like hiding their feelings in order to make sure that their parents’ feelings are not hurt. They may also feel like they have to make their parents’ pain and sacrifice “worth it” by achieving the goals their parents never had the chance to try for.

How do you heal?

Healing intergenerational trauma can be complex and can take time. The first step is to acknowledge that while it may have been unintentional, the caregivers’ trauma can still cause long-lasting effects, even as an adult. You will also want to learn how to process your own trauma and how to cope with your own emotions in a healthy manner, without hiding them. Finally, you will want to establish boundaries with your family so that you are able to heal yourself, and so that you can stop the transmission of intergenerational trauma with you. While it can feel unfair that you have the burden of healing, it can be helpful to reframe it as you having the power to heal yourself, positively impacting not only the generations that came before you but also the ones that will come after.

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