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Generational Trauma: Pain Passed Down

In colonial Kenya, a great grandmother who lost her husband and her three sons as they fought in the resistance against the colonial government was herself placed in a concentration camp. She may have learned to cope by cutting off her emotions. The hard labor and physical abuse she endured likely led her to interact with her remaining children in a harsh, emotionally distant fashion that emphasized efficiency. Her children likely grew up starved for affection and unable to attune to their own children emotionally. This is how trauma is passed down through generations socially.

For generations to come, this family may struggle with emotional expression. There may be tendencies within the family to deny emotions, to internalize them until they come spilling out in rage or psychosis or to cope using drugs or alcohol leading to ruin. Sexually risky behavior and difficult personal relationships are also common in this context. Some may even experience physical symptoms that lack a clear physical cause leading to unending medical complaints. This intergenerational trauma is what becomes whispered in the neighborhood as a family curse.

Yvonne Awour's "Dust" highlights some of these effects in her depiction of Kenya's violent past. She highlights the grief and pain Mau Mau survivors endured and the effect on their families. Unacknowledged, until relatively recently, is the fact that unresolved emotional and mental dysfunction will inevitably affect close family members, especially children. Feelings and mental states are contagious.

Intergenerational trauma is sometimes known as Complex-PTSD and was first conceptualized by Dr. Herman as recently as 1992 when she proposed the presence of long-term trauma among survivors and their families. She built upon the concept of PTSD by introducing the more severe, prolonged and repeated trauma passed down generationally. This research is considered so young that the American Psychological Association has still not included Complex PTSD in their official manual of diagnosis. Newer studies now show that PTSD causes changes on the genetic level meaning that intergenerational transmission is also biological. You can read more about it here.

Studies have documented high rates of psychological distress among children of Holocaust survivors. with symptoms such as low self-esteem, depression, aggression and isolation. Other studies on the impact of slavery on African-American families have also proven transmission of trauma to the next generation. The recent “Black Lives Matter” movement was not just highlighting racism but it’s impact on the African-American community. Many in the community still exhibit low self-regard because of the color of their skin due to internalized trauma.

Despite the obvious and widespread impact of colonialism in Africa, little to no research has been conducted on its impact. Acknowledgement of the atrocities visited on the African people is still hard to come by from the governments responsible. Stolen artefacts remain unreturned, reparations - a touchy subject. This continues to foster the cloud of denial, hypersensitivity, anger, helplessness and anxiety that permeates our societies. An environment that cannot help but breed even more trauma in the form of oppressive regimes, corruption, election inspired violence and civil war.

We cannot heal until I am healed. We cannot heal until you are healed. A healed society is made up of healed individuals. We cannot afford to wait for the recognition of our pain by those who perpetrated it; though their governments exist, they themselves are long gone. We must recognize our own pain, validate our own struggle and acknowledge the hurt. We must embrace our ancestors and acknowledge their pain. Let us do the work of healing so that our children will have a lesser burden and our children’s children can dare to be free!

Happy and Reflective Madaraka Day to you!

I've added links to more reading throughout the blog but I wanted to also share these local research studies that I found. They are by no means exhaustive but they may lead you down some interesting rabbit holes of discovery.

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