How Parental Trauma Affects Children and What You Can Do About It

Jun 22, 2023 | Anger, Anxiety, Depression, Family Issues, Helping a Loved One, Mental Health, Trauma

Negative or traumatic experiences from parents have the ability to influence their children in a multitude of ways. Trauma can range significantly and is categorized as either Little T or Big T. 

Little T traumas are less severe than Big T and can stem from experiences like the loss of a pet or loved one, bullying, an accident or injury, or even a breakup. 

Big T, on the other hand, is far more serious and devastating to the psyche. It is also commonly associated with the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Examples of this form of trauma can range from sexual abuse to emotional abuse, physical violence, or witnessing a catastrophic event. 

Regardless of the form experienced by the parent, these are transferable to children if the trauma is not healed. Generational trauma is a complex subject that affects many families and is easily perpetuated. Fortunately, the ability to understand why this happens and proper intervention can lead to a decrease in incidence.


How Is Trauma Shared?

Although it may seem hard to believe, children can be influenced by experiences they’ve never had. Indirectly, parental traumas impact their children through means such as their disposition, the way they communicate, their attachment styles, and their mental health. An example of this could be a parent that experienced verbal or physical abuse as a child. Often, abuse victims have lower self-confidence, a higher incidence of substance abuse, irritability, and depression. These behaviors have a huge impact on children for a couple of reasons. 

Firstly, they are witnessing these behaviors and using them as a point of reference to understand the world. Their parents exhibit these traits, therefore, they view them as normal. They are more likely to tolerate these same behaviors in friends or relationships as a result. 

Secondly, they often grow up expressing the same traits as they are simply mirroring their parent. Because this parental behavior is observed during their formative years, it helps shape who they become. Though this is not guaranteed in every situation, the likelihood is greatly increased.


Emotional Influence

The emotional influence of parental trauma on their children can start at birth. When children are born, they begin developing their attachment style based on the care provided to them by their parents. For example, mothers who have experienced trauma during their own childhood can struggle with building an emotional attachment to their own children. Babies that come from these kinds of situations often exhibit anxious-attachment styles as well as the avoidant attachment. 

Anxious-attached children are hypersensitive, do not establish boundaries well, and can be dependent on others for their emotional state. Avoidant-attached children often lack the ability to form healthy relationships, avoid interactions with others, and have a hard time trusting others. Both of these attachment styles are ultimately unhealthy and result in adverse adult behavior. Understandably, this can further perpetuate the cycle of generational trauma. 

A study conducted on mothers that experienced high levels of trauma took place in 2014 and involved showing mothers who experienced trauma and a control group of mothers’ images of their sad or upset babies. The mothers who experienced trauma had reduced activation in the amygdala when the photos were shown. The amygdala is responsible for emotional processing. This study showed the clear impact of trauma on a neurological level. These mothers did not have a less emotional reaction to their baby’s negative emotion by choice; it was a result of unhealed trauma within their own brains. Even so, this decreased sensitivity to their own baby’s emotions and needs can result in the formation of insecure attachment styles within the infants.

Additionally, mothers that witnessed interpersonal trauma, such as marital abuse, exhibited less sensitivity to their baby’s needs and lower quality of interaction. Though this study was conducted only on mother-child interactions, it is likely that paternal relationships with trauma sufferers offer similar results. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that children of parents that had multiple adverse childhood experiences are four times more likely to suffer from behavioral issues. These studies indicate that trauma experienced by parents can lead to a decreased lack of emotional intelligence, extreme sensitivity, depression, and anxiety.


Physical Influence

Trauma manifests itself physically within the body, although it may disguise itself as an illness. Some of the most common symptoms that children experience following trauma are fatigue, sleep disorders, poor concentration, anxiety-related symptoms, and muscle tension. Though none of these symptoms are life-threatening, they can lead to health issues down the line. For example, a regular lack of sleep lowers the immune system’s ability to function and can result in frequent illness. The inability to focus correctly has a widespread effect as well. 

Children that suffer from trauma early on have a decreased likelihood of academic success, with poor grades and attendance being the most frequent issues experienced. This continues to impact them into adulthood as they attempt to find careers and become independent.

Most of the struggles people face after trauma start in the brain but end up manifesting physically. For example, anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues stemming from trauma. These mental illnesses can cause dramatic weight loss from lack of appetite, self-harm, reclusive behavior, and even suicide. Similarly, trauma sufferers have heightened levels of stress, which causes harmful physical symptoms as well. 

Stress is linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and stroke. Especially for children that live in unpredictable or dangerous environments, they may experience high levels of stress on a daily basis. This continuously high exposure to cortisol can have lasting effects on emotional and physical health. 


What You Can Do To Help

Seeking therapy is the most beneficial method in order to heal trauma. Cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, is incredibly successful in healing patients with a wide variety of trauma-related disorders, such as PTSD. CBT allows patients to talk through their emotions with a non-biased and trained therapist. Their work requires many sessions as it is an ongoing process in which layers are peeled back in each session. Revisiting the trauma and sorting through the experiences is a common technique in CBT. Patients are able to improve their emotional processing capabilities, re-establish a feeling of security and safety, and improve coping mechanisms.

Many CBT therapists are now trained in a recent therapeutic process known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. This form of psychotherapy helps patients heal from the emotional distress they have experienced in their lifetime. The goal is to reconnect the person with their thoughts and emotions in a safe way. It allows the processing of traumatic events and healing from the symptoms that come along with such severe trauma. It is commonly used for war veterans with severe PTSD but is now being used in a widespread manner. 

Another method by which to heal parental trauma is through group therapy. Associating with other trauma survivors is beneficial for establishing a feeling of safety and acceptance. The ability to hear others’ stories, share individual experiences, and develop healthy relationships is incredibly powerful for parents that suffer from trauma. Group therapy is most beneficial when combined with individual therapy also. Finally, seeking a psychiatrist that can prescribe medications that can aid in the healing process is another method to consider.

Most adults have experienced some level of trauma in their lives, whether it is Little T or Big T. Although this is not often within their control, the ability to heal and discontinue the spread of trauma through ensuing generations is. Seeking help from a trained therapist, exploring group therapy, and educating yourself on how trauma alters the childhood of your children is the perfect place to start. Healing is not linear and is likely to bring up a wide range of emotions, but your children and their future children will reap the benefits.


New Dimensions Can Help!

New Dimensions helps adolescents and adults who are struggling with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, trauma, OCD, alcoholism, bipolar disorder and other mental health or substance abuse issues.  We have in-person treatment programs in Katy, The Woodlands, and Houston, Texas.  We also have online telehealth treatment programs for residents of Texas.  New Dimensions also provides psychological testing for ADHD, OCD, learning disabilities, autism, and other intellectual, emotional, and behavioral issues.  To learn more, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at