by Jamie Stern
How Trauma is Passed Down Through the Generations
Foreword From the Author
This article was put into momentum in 2020. Originally, I created an Indo Trauma Survey specifically to write this article. It was answered by a random sample of the Indo population varying between the ages of 28 and 82. Little did I know that this would be the start of a huge project and quite a personal journey. As I pushed through, I found traumas in my own life beginning to take a toll on my well-being. As I uncovered more, the intensity grew. I began to understand how transgenerational traumas had impacted my own life. I had to put this project on hold during 2021 as I moved through major life changes, challenges, and developing health troubles. By the start of 2022, a new opportunity was offered. Representatives and researchers of the Wacana Journal of the Humanities of Indonesia reached out with an enthusiastic invitation to share these developing studies. The intensity of this work was exhilarating, however it also left me emotionally exhausted. I am thankful because it finally taught me to listen to my body, my feelings—and to trust and validate my experiences. I healed from the transgenerational trauma that I didn’t even realize I was carrying for so long.
To learn more about transgenerational trauma in the Indo population, please read our recently published extensive research article titled, “Three generations later; Examining transnationalism, cultural preservation, and transgenerational trauma in United States Indo population”. This article was published in the December 2022 issue of the Wacana Journal of the Humanities of Indonesia. ~ Jamie Stern
Expressions of Trauma
“Wow—Oma is always so stressed and worried. How come?”
– Nine-year-old me
When I was a child in the early 90s, I would visit and stay with my Oma who lived in Bell Gardens, CA. She was very kindhearted but chronically tense. Looking back, I wish that her anxiety and symptoms of PTSD could have been soothed and resolved. She was so jumpy, so pessimistic, and often sad. She spoke a little about ‘the camps’ in the Dutch East Indies and how there was almost never any food to eat. She occasionally shared tragically small glimpses of what had happened to her, but it was never in any sequential order and there was no historical context; just faraway moments that appeared to have hints of dissociation.
Bluntly, my dear Oma drove everybody in our family a little bit crazy from time-to-time. Her stress became our stress and it was exhausting for everyone. This was the surface level effect of transgenerational trauma which is the transmission of trauma through social-environmental factors from one generation to the next. Simply put: just being around a stressed-out person will likely stress you out too. Growing up in an environment where a parent is chronically anxious, depressed, explosive, fearful etc. will often create an atmosphere of dysregulation. A child will learn to cope in that type of environment. Once they take these coping skills into new environments such as work and relationships, they might notice some struggles.
A random sample of the adult Indo population varying between the ages of 28 and 82 shared their input. There were high reports of:
- Overthinking (59% agreed)
- Difficulty in fully trusting people (59% agreed)
- Frequent anxiety (57% agreed)
- Being overly hard on yourself (57% agreed)
- Having the need to prove yourself (54% agreed)
- Always feeling responsible for others (51% agreed)
- Felt neglected growing up (51% agreed)
- Needing to control things in an effort to feel safer (49% agreed)
- Needing validation from others (46% agreed)
- Fear of abandonment (46% agreed)
These expressions of trauma and childhood dysregulation were the 10 highest scoring symptoms out of 50 potential answers. Half the survey population identified with feeling the effects of their parents’ trauma and noticing that these effects may have impacted them in various ways.
Secondary trauma (which comes in the form of traumatic stories and retellings) will haunt the listener and/or leave them with impotent rage. Knowing that your loved one endured so much can create such an angry mobilization response (the urge to get up and do something about it!), often with nowhere to productively funnel that energy. You are helpless to a situation that happened in the past and it feels terrible. It can leave behind a variety of feelings such as anxiety, dissonance, and sadness. A more recent and provocative claim is that the experience of trauma is passed to subsequent generations through epigenetic mechanisms affecting DNA function or gene transcription.
Creating a Personal Trauma Timeline
Today, I look at my Oma’s experience with such tenderness, compassion, and respect. She was born in 1916 in the Dutch East Indies. She was a “totok”. Her father passed away when she was two years old. She and her mother were on the run because her father’s family wanted to remove her from her mother’s care. The instability of her childhood created ruptured attachments. As a young adult, her first husband died of gangrene while enlisted in the military. World War II put her in the Japanese internment camps where she desperately tried to care for her diabetic mother. Then the Bersiap Period happened. Sometime after, she met my Opa who carried his own trauma from childhood and suffering as a POW. They married and started their family. More trauma came in the form of civil unrest that threatened my Oma’s life for being entirely of European blood. Not willing to risk his family’s safety, my Opa uprooted everyone and left.
Through repatriation to the Netherlands and immigration to the United States, Oma experienced a lot more stress. Once in the United States, the most devastating news came—her youngest child (out of four), was diagnosed with the incurable muscle wasting disease, Duchene Muscular Dystrophy. Oma dutifully took care of her son, her other children, and her husband. Her youngest passed in 1989, which was followed unexpectedly by her husband in 1992. Oma was suddenly living alone after a life of caring for everyone except herself.
Creating this trauma timeline for my Oma allowed for a bit of insight. I could see connections that were not originally as clear. As described by Indo-Dutch therapist Marcel van Doorn, in the Netherlands, creating family constellations and genograms can help to visually connect and facilitate understanding about the way trauma is transmitted to the next generation. It can look like a family tree with the addition of the types of adversities that family members may have endured. Marcel van Doorn also explains that “trauma is in your body, and in your DNA”. For more information on healing this type of trauma, the works of Dr. Peter Levine (author of The Body Keeps the Score) are highly useful.
There is an innate genetic factor in the activation of the trauma response (and emotional responses) to internal and external stimuli. Epigenetics is the developing study of this phenomenon. Epigenetic factors are the activation of a biochemical mechanism response to extreme internalized stress. It turns on certain genes, which can be detrimental to the well-being of an individual. Epigenetic responses and transgenerational trauma are activated or heightened by a person’s past trauma and potentially further antagonized in stressful (high cortisol producing) situations.
Takeaways from the Indo Trauma Survey
What are some examples of the effects of trauma continuing to be passed down generationally?
In the Indo Trauma Survey, the participants were asked if they ever encountered situations at home while growing up, where they felt like their feelings were invalidated. Examples were shared by the participants. The top three included:
- “You think that’s bad? I survived war!”
- “In the camps, we had nothing to eat. Eat your food.”
- “Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about.”
While these comments may come across as a parent trying to bring their kid into reality and show them that “things are not as bad” as they think, it backfired for many young people. Without context and the security of knowing that their troubles meant something to their parents, many Indo children grew up feeling invalidated and like their immediate concerns did not matter. This trained many to diminish their own troubles which impacted solution-finding and their mental peace. In the example of “You think that’s bad? I survived war!” the survey participant described how each time they had a social issue at school, their parent immediately diminished their problem and offered no opportunity to find a solution. This caused the participant to stop going to their parent for emotional support and taught them that nothing they experienced was ‘bad’ because it was not war. They found themselves in therapy years later trying to understand how to hold space for their emotions, deal with social issues (no longer on the playground, but now in the workforce) so that they could process what they were feeling, and move forward.
In the example of “In the camps, we had nothing to eat. Eat your food”, the survey participant recounting this comment went on to describe their disordered eating. They felt guilty if they did not eat everything, so they developed an unhealthy relationship with food due to the emotional stress they felt in trying to appease their parent. They would either avoid eating food or they would overeat. The participant explained “I felt so anxious at dinnertime because I knew I would get in trouble, and this made me feel sick to my stomach before even starting to eat.”
In the example of “Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about”, the survey participant recounting this comment described their childhood as completely invalidating to them. They said when they felt scared or nervous it was not taken seriously. They learned to never cry or show their emotions in front of people. Instead of understanding that tears are a healthy outlet, they saw it as weakness and felt humiliated for themselves and others who allowed for such a display.
While many Indos grew up in emotionally secure households—78% of our survey population said that they grew up in environments that they found to be invalidating at least sometimes, with 13.5% of this group saying that it was invalidating all the time.
In speaking with a dear friend and past volunteer for The Indo Project, Louise Brough, she described how transgenerational trauma in her family came in the form of sadness for her mother’s experiences. She described a story about butter. When she was a little girl, she would watch her mother sparingly spread butter on a piece of toast. Resources were scarce. She would coat the entire piece of toast in the thinnest layer. Decades later, Louise continued this practice using the same butter knife that her mother used when she was a child. Then one day, the realization hit her “You can have more butter, girl!”. For her entire life up to this point, she had been reenacting the concept of sacristy. While it was “just” regarding simple butter, the emotional depth of where this practice came from was meaningful and associated with trauma from a time of great uncertainty.
Healing the Next Generation
Today, the most unifying practice in Indo culture is a home-cooked Indo meal. The food primarily favored at an Indo table is Indonesian food sometimes mixed with traditional Dutch dishes, and Indo-Dutch fusion foods as highlighted by our resident Indo Chef, Jeff Keasberry. By engaging in these culinary traditions, Indos are able to connect with their roots and often find the experience to be peaceful. By taking time to enjoy a beloved and nostalgic meal, an individual affords themselves the opportunity to:
- Heal or process deep emotions through familial connection and spending time with loved ones
- Feel emotionally grounded
- Process old traumas
- Connect with their inner child
- Hold space for themselves
- Feel a sense of greater connection and purpose
Upon examining the impact of historical events on the Indo people, it is clear that we have endured tremendous strife in efforts to survive. The Indo people collectively have spent a lot of time in survival mode and have incurred emotional (and physiological) impacts which deserve to be healed. By creating a deep understanding of the Indo experience, trauma healing can take place through acknowledgment and validation. To foster environments which feel safe, trauma needs to be processed.
Transgenerational trauma can be healed in succeeding generations. Trauma responses do not have to be inherited or accepted as ingrained knowledge. Trauma healing can take place by connecting with one‘s roots, honoring one‘s own unique healing path, and supporting one‘s mental health. Additionally, as a psychotherapist, I encourage people not to judge their path of healing or to be afraid of it—there is no longer any need to suffer in silence.
1 The American Psychiatric Association describes “dissociation” as having problems with memory, identity, emotion, perception, behavior, and sense of self. Dissociative symptoms can potentially disrupt every area of mental functioning. Linked to trauma, dissociation is the experience of detachment or feeling as if one is outside one’s body, or having loss of memory, or amnesia.
2 Yehuda, R., & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: Putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(3), 243-257. doi:10.1002/wps.20568
3 Totok is the Indonesian or Malay word for a European born or living in the former Dutch East Indies, usually Dutch. Although the Totok might have been born in the Dutch East Indies or lived there for a long period of time, it has – in contrast to mixed Indo-Europeans – no Indonesian ancestors.
4 For more information about Marcel van Doorn
The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article.
Hi, it was a very good article, and it brought back memories about my life after my dad came back from the war. He was a POW ( Dutch Navy) and was forced to work on the Burma Rail Road. Things changed after he came back, I, however, have to say that both my parents are heros. My mom for keeping us all together, and my dad for serving his country and surviving the POW camps. Then leaving Indonesia to go to Holland and eventually emigrating to America. Thanks for the interesting article. Loved it!
Thank you for this article. When I learned about epigenetics and trauma some years back, I finally understood that my childhood and even my adulthood were driven by my parents’ experiences during and after the war as well as their repatriation to the Netherlands. My mother and her siblings were buitenkampers during the war and were in camps during the Bersiap, while my father was a POW in Birma and Japan. They were emotionally scarred but never spoke about those experiences when I was young, and told me only a few things when I was older and asked them about those times. The move to the Netherlands was also traumatic for them as it took a long time to get settled in a country that wasn’t exactly welcoming. Over the years I had to piece information together from other survivors’ oral and written accounts and from books about that era. It explained so much of what my childhood and teenage years were like. I always envied my Dutch friends who had affectionate parents and supportive families. For years I too had trouble showing my feelings. I came to understand that my parents were shaped by all those terrible events and I was as well.
This article made me sad – I recognise too much of it.
Oh my. We definitely have this in common. My mom is 85 and a survivor of WW2 and Bersiap. Then repatriation to Holland and a move to Canada in 1974. Family trauma runs deep. I hadn’t really heard all my parents’ stories til well into adulthood.
Epigenetics is a fascinating topic. Thanks for mentioning that. 🙂
love it, quite amazing, and indeed many of us were traumatized, especially in the Bersiap time, How nice that you still have pictures of your grandparents.
Excellent article, Jamie, and. Oh, how I relate!
This article should be published in more journals!