The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

transmission of trauma


In Monday’s column on social psychiatry, I mentioned that intergenerational transmission of trauma may be an integral part of the Memphis police shootings. The clue to me was that the perpetrators were black cops — not the more usual white police brutality towards black citizens. This suggests a shared cultural influence outside of simple interpersonal racism.

The legacy of intergenerational transmission of trauma as a field of study began in the 1960s when Canadian psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff studied the mental well-being of the children of Holocaust survivors.1 It was noted that their children often had symptoms that seemed in some way related to the parents’ trauma.

Over time, such studies have been conducted with other traumatized individuals: descendants of slaves; the natives of America; and the children of Rwanda’s civil war, among others. Why can these groups have different results over time? This appears to be due to differences in treatment by the future rulers and their own recovery strategies.

The mechanisms of intergenerational transmission turned out to involve both upbringing and nature. The education was through the education about safety. The nature, unexpected and later discovered, was epigenetic. Social experiences can result in genes being silenced or expressed before children are conceived, which can then be inherited. This can lead, for example, to the next generation overreacting and becoming more vulnerable to stress and risk.

So applying that to black police and black citizens stopped by police, one factor could be how the trauma from slavery and the Reconstruction era was carried over. Given the generations of transmission, the effects can be insidious and difficult to detect. Startle reactions and overreactions to danger can be a form of transmission, so both black police and the victim could overreact in the arrest process. Police culture in general might consist of another traumatic process, that of identification with the aggressor.

The promising news is that there are potential interventions, including:

  1. Screening applicants to the police for susceptibility to violence. For those working in police or security, hiring may involve assessing what is called “reparative adaptation effects” in an ancestral survival venogram and perceived parenting.
  2. education of the public. Public education about the risks to offspring of traumatized people can raise awareness of the challenge, as long as it is allowed.
  3. strengthen resilience. With the help of loved ones and the community, support and the realistic certainty that the present can be different, together with a new vision for the future, the offspring will be allowed to have different epigenetics and stop the transmission process.
  4. Establishment of a national task force. Given the institutionalization and complexity of the legacy of slavery, displacement of indigenous peoples, Japanese internment, recent mass shootings, and other collective trauma, a national restoration law may be needed.

There is no easy solution to police brutality – no wonder. While certainly not the only likely influence, police brutality may in part be a legacy of the violence and trauma rooted in our country, a deeply rooted history that needs more processing and a new narrative.

dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist specializing in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific author and public speaker, he received the unique designation “Hero of Psychiatry Public” from the 2002 convention of the American Psychiatric Association. He champions mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for a better world. He is a member of the editorial board of Psychiatric Times™.


1. DeAngelis T. The Legacy of Trauma. Psychology monitor. 2019;50(2):36.

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