Transgenerational Trauma in Black Families
Updated: Feb 4
Transgenerational trauma is defined as “a theory which states that trauma can be transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms” (Google, 2017).
While the area transgenerational trauma is still a developing psychological theory, researchers like Dr. Joy DeGruy have paved the way for necessary conversations about the socialization of trauma in black households.
By researching the intersectionality of American slavery, racism, and trauma in her book Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome, she brought to light a startling question:
Do black families raise generations based on ideologies rooted in trauma?
So how do we discuss transgenerational trauma across generations in our households?
Discussing the value of self-care and therapy. Generationally, Black Americans have been taught “we have to be twice as good as others to be good enough.” With this, Black Americans reinforced the idea that strength has to be measured by how much you can endure, physically and emotionally. In conjunction, therapy has been heavily stigmatized within our community and needs to be reframed as a necessary component of mental health. It’s okay to take measures to be okay.
Respectful self and familial exploration. When discovering transgenerational patterns such as unhealthy communication with others, inadequate financial literacy, the denial of mental illness, etc. be as patient with yourself and your family as possible. Transgenerational patterns cannot be undone in a day, but with patience and practice you can begin to unearth and resolve trauma for future generations.
Resilience does not have to be destructive. Discuss adaptive ways to replace destructive habits or beliefs that are rooted in trauma.
Open communication and understanding. There are definitely gaps in perspective between generations, but understand that there is plenty of common ground-begin to create a culture of safe discussion.
Redefining respect between generations. Generationally we have been taught not to question our elders because it has been perceived as disrespect. Looking at this from this lens of transgenerational theory, in times of American slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and other periods of the mistreatment of black Americans, they could not afford to miscalculate or question authority because it could mean their life or the lives of others. We are descendants of multigenerational trauma survivors. Since Black Americans have been raised from a post-traumatic lens, we have to remind our previous generations that inquiry from younger generations is for understanding, but also for the progression and evolution of future generations.
Lastly, accountability does not equal failure. When addressing transgenerational trauma many generations or individuals may feel attacked or overly responsible. In acknowledging our roles in how families have gotten to where they are and adapting healthy changes true transgenerational healing can begin. Generationally, from the perspective of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Black Americans “failure” jeopardized survival. We must acknowledge how heavily American slavery and systemic racism has created many layers of trauma. The only role that accountability truly plays is to transition from knowledge, to understanding, to necessary and radical change.
For more information about Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome view Dr. Joy DeGruy’s lecture here (It’s long, but so worth it!)
Ayana is here to provide therapists for anyone who may struggle with transgenerational trauma, know you are not alone.