Transgenerational Trauma: The Cycles of Insecure Attachment

The theory around the experience of trauma in one family member being passed down the generational line is a relatively new one. But the respective novelty of the concept makes it no less relevant to those of us who struggle to pinpoint where our insecure attachment styles come from. We feel as though our childhoods were somewhat normal, so why do we struggle with relationships and self-perceptions?

The answer to this difficulty identifying the genesis of problems could be held in our genes; our insecure attachment style might not have originated in our direct relationships but instead in those of our parents and perhaps even grandparents or great-grandparents.

In a nutshell, this transmission of trauma is what can be described as transgenerational trauma – when emotional wounds are passed on from generation to generation because there has been no resolution or healing. Transgenerational trauma is also known as inter- and multi-generational trauma. 

To help explain the concept of transgenerational trauma and how it works, this article discusses:

  • The classification of trauma
  • What transgenerational trauma is
  • How transgenerational trauma is transmitted
  • Whether insecure attachment styles can be passed on like transgenerational trauma
  • The steps you can take to prevent passing on insecure attachment styles to your children

If you would like to know whether you have an insecure attachment style, take the quiz on our website and receive your free report within minutes.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma can arise in various forms and is generally an emotional response to a stressful, frightening, or distressing event, such as a natural disaster, death of a loved one, or abuse. The onset and severity of trauma symptoms can vary from person to person, but they typically include:

  • Intense or upsetting dreams/nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Increases in avoidant behaviors such as detachment or lack of interest in close relationships
  • Memory loss (especially around the traumatic event)

Yet, to fully understand the impact of trauma on an individual, it’s essential that we assess their social context. So when we apply this consideration to a child, it means that we need to understand the family environment in which they develop.

For example, if a child experiences a disruption to the bonding process with their primary caregiver, they may develop an attachment trauma. This emotional wound can be overt, such as abuse or neglect, or caregiver absence for reasons such as death and divorce. However, attachment trauma can also form from more imperceptible means, such as a lack of affection or attunement from a caregiver. The consequences of attachment trauma are pervasive – beyond even what most people recognize. And this is where the role of intergenerational trauma comes into play.

What Is Transgenerational Trauma?

As opposed to trauma that directly occurs to an individual, transgenerational trauma is passed down from generation to generation through our genes and behaviors. This form of trauma can show symptoms on both an individual and a collective level. 

For example, on an individual level, domestic abuse can alter someone’s genetic makeup, therefore predisposing their children to be more sensitive to similarly stressful events. Furthermore, individual trauma can also be passed on through behaviors and attitudes; a child of someone who has experienced domestic abuse may model their caregivers’ actions and internalize their attitudes.

On a collective level, transgenerational trauma can be passed down through the shared experiences of groups of people. Also known as “historical trauma,” children of repressed groups such as survivors of the Holocaust, descendants of African-American slaves, and war refugees have shown to be particularly prone to this form of trauma.  

Yet, despite the clear negative aspects of passing down trauma through our genes and behaviors, it must be noted that we can also pass down positive traits as a result of hardships – such as resilience. This effect was observed in people whose grandparents survived the Holocaust – their traumatic experiences embedded a sense of strength throughout the generations of their families.

Why Transgenerational Trauma is Called the “Phantom”

Transgenerational trauma is often referred to as the “Phantom” throughout literature. This is basically because of our lack of awareness that it exists within us. The traumatic event(s) did not directly happen to us, so it lives in our subconscious and is manifested through our attitudes and actions – and unwittingly passed on to our children as a result. 

This effect essentially explains how and why we may experience years of attachment insecurity without being able to figure out exactly what caused it.

How Is Transgenerational Trauma Passed On Through Generations?

There used to be a historical argument within the field of psychology regarding whether our environment (nurture) or our genetics (nature) exerted the most influence on the development of our traits and behaviors. The truth is that both arguments have been debunked – because it’s pretty much always both. 

Epigenetics is the study of how both our behaviors and environment can influence changes in how our genes work. However, unlike changes to our DNA, epigenetic changes can alter how our body reads a DNA sequence. This essentially means the process of epigenetics determines whether or not certain genes are expressed and to what extent.


Effectively, epigenetics explains why caregivers’ trauma can affect their children even before they are born. 

The strongest evidence for the role of epigenetics in intergenerational trauma is that of distress experienced in utero and in early childhood. Although the importance of these early stages of development has been given more attention in recent years, many people may still foster the belief that “they’re just a baby – they won’t understand.” But this belief is unequivocally inaccurate. Babies and young children are quite adept at picking up cues from their environment – especially those related to traumatic events. 

On another note, a further environmental factor that can influence transgenerational distress is our direct response to stressors in our surroundings. How we eat and treat ourselves during troublesome times can directly influence the future of our children’s health. 

So, to simplify how transgenerational trauma is passed down through generations, it is, in essence, transmitted through epigenetics, distress during pregnancy, and early environmental factors such as conflict or traumatic events in childhood.  

Yet, an important final note on how transgenerational trauma occurs is that, although epigenetics plays such an integral role in how we express our DNA, epigenetic changes are reversible.

Can Insecure Attachment Pass On Like Transgenerational Trauma?

The short answer is yes. Just like any other form of trauma or distress, an insecure attachment style can be passed down through generations. There are a number of reasons for this effect:

Parenting Can Trigger Attachment Insecurity

Parenting – especially for first-time caregivers – can be a stressful experience. This isn’t to suggest that it’s not a rewarding and loving time in peoples’ lives, but someone with an insecure attachment style may re-experience the trauma from their early years when raising their children. 

Even if these caregivers are very capable in their parenting style, catering to an infant’s needs can trigger a sense of loss regarding how their own needs were met as children. As a result, this resurgence of hurt may cause these caregivers to detach or inconsistently meet their childrens’ needs – leaving a child feeling confused and searching for the affection and attention they crave.

An Insecure Attachment May Create a Role Reversal in the Parent-Child Relationship

When a caregiver detaches from their child and rejects or inconsistently meets their needs, the child is forced to create their own conditions for secure attachment. This means that they feel the need to comfort and forge closeness with their caregivers, creating a role reversal in the relationship, which can have detrimental effects on the caregiver-child bond. What’s more, a child rarely has any other reference for relationships beyond that with their caregivers and close relatives, so a role reversal can have a lasting impact on their perceptions of and actions in relationships moving forward.

Trauma May Cause Misattunement to Childrens’ Needs

To develop a secure attachment style a child needs to feel safe and secure in the relationship with their caregivers, and also recognize that their caregivers are attuned to their emotions and needs. Yet, trauma can impact how caregivers cope in different ways – and some of which can prevent a child from forming a secure attachment style.

Sometimes caregivers are aware of their trauma and feel guilty that these difficulties are impacting their children – often resulting in attempts to push down feelings and prevent any processing of trauma. Consequently, as children typically learn by example, a child picks up on this detachment from emotions and mirrors how their caregiver deals with unpleasant feelings – and ultimately may develop the avoidant attachment style

On the other hand, when caregiver trauma creates a role reversal in a caregiver-child relationship, a child may feel the need to comfort and take care of their caregiver – which may result in the child developing an anxious attachment style. 

Alternatively, if a caregiver is so heavily impacted by their feelings of trauma that they end up creating an unstable environment for their child, the child may feel afraid and unsafe within the dynamic – ultimately leading to the development of the disorganized attachment style.

Not sure about your attachment style? Take our quiz to find out.

What Can I Do to Prevent My Insecure Attachment Style From Passing On to My Children?

Even though our trauma can be carried within our genes, we still have the power to prevent the transmission of an insecure attachment style to our children. Essentially, averting this transmission follows the same guidelines for preventing transgenerational trauma – on individual, group, community, and possibly even global levels by improving current conditions.

With these levels in mind, the following factors should be considered:

#1 – Prevent Transmission of Insecure Attachment Through Awareness

Raising awareness of how trauma can be transmitted on a personal and group level may mitigate its effects. Knowledge of how trauma on an individual level can be perpetuated through misattunement to childrens’ needs, and also how it can be maintained by mass events such as war and systemic racism allows us to make changes to how we handle feelings of loss, grief, and resentment – therefore, helping prevent the passing on of insecure attachment styles to our children.

#2 – Recognize Strengths to Overcome Transmission of Insecure Attachment

Strengths and resiliencies are often developed as a personal response to trauma – but can also be passed down in our genes through generations. This means that those of us who have experienced trauma – either directly or indirectly – have an inbuilt durability. This effect is a unique positive note on trauma, as it not only steers the focus of conversation to the topic, but also how to overcome it.

#3 – Allow Time to Grieve

Giving ourselves time to mourn trauma is integral in preventing its transmission to further generations. Regardless of whether this trauma happened directly to us, or whether it was passed down to us from our relatives – we need to create a mental space to process and resolve it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that acknowledging and moving on from trauma is simple. Instead, it means to become more conscious of it, what led to it, and its potential effects on our well-being – such as the development of an insecure attachment style.

#4 – Emphasize Safety and Support

When raising a child to have a secure attachment style, two of the five conditions are “safety” and “support.” This means that the child feels safe in their environment and supported enough to explore the unknown world around them. Therefore, promoting these conditions in our children through the exploration of feelings, thoughts, and emotions may help break the cycles of intergenerational trauma and prevent the transmission of an insecure attachment style. Check out the five conditions for secure attachment here.

Final Thoughts on Transgenerational Trauma and Insecure Attachment

As we’ve discussed, although transgenerational trauma is the “Phantom” pain that can be difficult to detect, and sometimes even harder to understand, it can still be prevented and overcome. Whereas we outlined how transgenerational trauma can lead to a cycle of insecure attachment and how best to prevent this, if you’re struggling with issues related to trauma and attachment, we recommend that you speak to a mental health professional for guidance. 

The key factor to remember is that due to the shared nature of transgenerational trauma – you are not alone in your struggles. Through awareness, recognition of strengths, allowing time to grieve, and promoting the conditions of safety and support, it is entirely possible to prevent the further transmission of trauma – as well as improve your own quality of life in the process.


Abraham, N., & Torok, M. (1994). Secrets and Posterity: The Theory of Transgenerational Phantom. In Abraham, N., Torok, M. (Eds.), The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, Volume 1. University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0226000877.

Alford, C.F. (2016).  Haunted Dialogues: When Histories Collide. In Grand, S., Salberg, J. (Eds.), Trans-generational Trauma and the Other: Dialogues across history and difference. Taylor & Francis. ISBN: 1315466287

Bakó, T., & Zana, K. (2018). The Vehicle of Transgenerational Trauma: The Transgenerational Atmosphere. American Imago, 75(2), 271-285. doi:10.1353/aim.2018.0013
Goodman, R.D. (2013). The transgenerational trauma and resilience genogram. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 26(3-4), 386-405. 

Isobel, S., Goodyear, M., Furness, T., & Foster, K. (2018). Preventing intergenerational trauma transmission: A critical interpretive synthesis. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 28(7-8), 1100-1113. 

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 


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