Historical/Intergenerational Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Trauma that affects entire cultural groups

Historical trauma, also called intergenerational trauma, is conceptualized as a “collective complex trauma inflicted on a group of people who share a specific group identity or affiliation – ethnicity, nationality, and religious affiliation. Essentially, intergenerational trauma refers to the impact that historical traumas continue to have on subsequent generations of a given population. For American Indians, historical trauma is the result of hundreds of years of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced acculturation. Researchers are beginning the examine the question of how intergenerational trauma might contribute to the presence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, especially among Native cultures, but others as well.

Although researchers have only begun to explore intergenerational trauma with American Indian/Alaska Natives relatively recently, studies of different populations who have experienced historical traumas (e.g., survivors of the Holocaust and their children) suggest that effects of a trauma can be transmitted from parents to children, similar to the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and culture.

Boarding schools provide an example of how traumas experienced by previous generations of the population continue to impact current generations of American Indians. Children were removed from their parents and placed in boarding schools, with the intention of acculturating the children to European traditions. Forced enrollment in these boarding schools severed children from their families, resulted in the loss of native tradition and language, caused malnutrition, subjected the children to violence, etc.

Many researchers theorize that removing children from the family system resulted in one of the most prominent ways in which historical trauma has manifested in subsequent generations. By displacing children from their families, they were unable to acquire appropriate parenting practices of their own and, as a result, lacked adequate parenting skills or abilities to pass to their own children. In this manner, American Indians who were not placed in boarding schools themselves still continue to experience the negative effects of a trauma that an earlier generation was exposed to. Similar effects can be seen in Canada’s First Nations individuals who were placed in residential schools and their children.

Researchers suggest that other consequences of historical trauma that can be passed down from parents to their children include a vulnerability to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, psychological distress, difficulty coping with stressful experiences, and poor attachment styles.


 Bombay, A., Matheson, K., & Anisman, H. (2009). Intergenerational trauma:   Convergence of multiple processes among First Nations peoples in Canada. Journal of    Aboriginal Health, 5, 1-42.

Evans-Campbell, T. (2008). Historical trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska  communities: A multilevel framework for exploring impacts on individuals, families, and   communities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23, 316-338.

Gone, J. P. (2009). A community-based treatment for Native American historical  trauma: Prospects for evidence-based practice. Journal of Consulting and Clinical  Psychology, 77, 751-762.

Whitbeck, L. B., Adams, G. W., Hoyt, D. R., & Chen, X. (2004). Conceptualizing and measuring historical trauma among American Indian people. American Journal of Community Psychology, 33, 119-130.