How Gen Zers Are Breaking Toxic Cycles of Trauma in Their Families
From the ways they spend their time to the ways they communicate (hello, TikTok!), members of Gen Z lead very different lives than the rest of us. But as HelloGiggles' Generation Next explores, there's a lot we can learn from them—whether it's their need for mental health support, their drive for self-expression, or their commitment to making the world a more inclusive place for all.
Whenever David Ruff, a 19-year-old social media influencer, felt stressed and anxious in his everyday life, it never occurred to him that one of the potential causes could be the traumatic events his grandmother experienced in the Holocaust many decades earlier. However, when it comes to generational trauma, the long-lasting impacts can not only affect the person who endured the traumatic experience, but transfer to family members for years to come.
"My grandma is a Holocaust survivor, and while no one in my family, myself included, will ever experience those horrors, it is important to acknowledge the generational and hereditary roots of mental health issues that come from that," Ruff tells HelloGiggles. Some of his specific anxieties, he explains, are similar to what his grandmother and mother have felt. "The fear of the unknown, even when there is no present danger, is something that's been passed down," says Ruff.
Research into the effects and transmission of generational trauma began only 40 years ago by Canadian psychiatrist Vivian M. Rakoff, M.D, who worked with three patients who were children of Holocaust survivors. Dr. Rakoff noticed that even though their parents did not overtly showcase the impacts of their experiences, all three children displayed severe psychological distress. "It would almost be easier to believe that they, rather than their parents, had suffered the corrupting, searing hell," she wrote in her study.
Dr. Julian Lagoy, M.D., a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers, explains that generational trauma stems from one or more traumatic experiences that occurred many decades ago but still have a significant impact on the current generation and those in between. Such experiences can include systemic racism, slavery, genocide, displacement of indigenous groups, multigenerational abusive families, poverty, and more.
In 1966, when Rakoff's report was published, there was a lot of stigmatization and negative perceptions of psychiatry, which made others skeptical of the psychiatrist's findings. However, as research continued, other scientists discovered that many (though not all) children of Holocaust survivors experienced behavioral difficulties including but not limited to impaired self‐esteem, anxiety, guilt, and the inability to maintain interpersonal relationships.
Further research found that children of Vietnam War veterans experienced similar behavioral symptoms. Both the Holocaust survivors and war-veteran children experienced trauma as a result of living with a traumatized individual, typically their parents. As children model what they see and hear from their parents, this can shift their thinking, beliefs, and behaviors. "For example, if we grow up in a home where we are told no one can be trusted or all people are bad, we develop that belief as well," explains Christine Mangum, a mental health counselor and head of content for the wellness app Aura.
Along with these passed down beliefs, Mangum says trauma can also get transferred genetically, as was seen in the Holocausts survivors' children. This is known as epigenetics, and it's the study of how behaviors and environment cause changes that affect the way our genes work, explains Dr. Lagoy. Studies show that exposure to a traumatic experience can modify our DNA, resulting in trauma that's passed down to offspring for generations.
Once someone experiences the effects of generational trauma, it can cause lifelong challenges that present themselves in every aspect of their life. "It impacts how future generations perceive, understand, and cope with trauma," explains Hannah Funderbunk LPC, a Georgia-based licensed therapist at Thriveworks. It can show up in everyday life through anxiety, behavioral changes, health issues, and decreased cognitive function. "Trauma also affects how parents raise their children, which further explains how the offspring of those who went through trauma are more likely to have a mental illness," says Dr. Lagoy.
That said, while they can have similar symptoms, each generation experiences generational trauma differently, says Dr. Lagoy. The ways society views and treats mental health and trauma, for instance, impacts how each generation copes. Members of Gen Z, those born between 1997 to 2012, are growing up in a time where mental health is more openly discussed and normalized than in the past. This change has made many Gen Zers more in touch with their own mental health, including the effects of generational trauma, which has pushed them to learn more about how to break the cycles that affect them and the older generations within their families.
Wendy Gonzalez, a 24-year-old therapist, says poverty and the difficulty of her parents' immigration from Ecuador and Mexico impacted her and her family's mental health over many years.
"My mom grew up very poor. She recalls waking up at 4:30 a.m. to go cook, wash clothes in the river, take care of siblings, and go to school," Gonzalez tells HelloGiggles. Her dad, an army veteran, also grew up in poor conditions, practically raising himself. Unfortunately, when they immigrated to the United States, they had to deal with "a new country, new language, and new customs," Gonzalez says, so things didn't get much easier.
"They always worked. I don't think they ever really knew what 'free time' or 'relaxing' meant, which is why I was raised to always work hard for everything," she recalls. "I always had to have nearly perfect grades. If I got a 95 on a test, then I would be asked, 'why not 100?'"
This high value placed on work ethic by many immigrant parents, combined with pressure to make their parents' sacrifice "worth it," can often lead to Gen Zers feeling a unique and chronic sense of guilt and trauma—which is exactly what happened for Gonzalez. "I thought, 'I am the start of the new generation. I have to be somebody to make their efforts worth it.'" This pressure led to low self-esteem, stress, and a fear of expressing her emotional struggles to her parents.
Kristel Morales Capon, a 20-year-old college student, also faced similar experiences after her family moved to the United States from South America. "[In] Ecuador, mental health is not talked about or taken seriously. I grew up having to keep my feelings and struggles to myself," she recalls. When she did speak up, she says, her feelings were dismissed, or she was called "dramatic" and told to work harder by her parents.
For many people living with generational trauma, it's often not understood that their mental health concerns might be linked to older generations' experiences, due to a lack of education on and stigma around the issue. Luckily, though, because they're growing up in a time where information on mental health is far more accessible than before, many Gen Zers are taking it upon themselves to learn how to address their concerns head-on.
Stefanie Pagan, a 24-year-old music marketing professional, shares with HelloGiggles that as a child, no one in her Italian family addressed mental health either. "Growing up in a household of immigrants had many perks, but also gave me a different mentality when it came to work and mental health, which was never a topic that we thought of, let alone talked about," she explains. "We were always told to work harder than everyone else, and those high expectations caused me to have a fear of failure."
For Ruff, the grandson of the Holocaust survivor, getting professional support has been a great source of help. "Until I went to therapy, I didn't realize that trauma can be compounding if not addressed. I also learned how to manage my anxiety and stress, and have shared those tools with the people I care about the most," he says. "I think that I will always be learning about how generational trauma has and will impact me, but I've found that understanding my family's history has been an integral step in my ongoing mental health journey."
In addition to pursuing counseling, Funderbunk suggests communication within families as a way to bring awareness. After her uncle passed away, Gonzalez says she used the tools she learned in therapy to facilitate difficult conversations with her mom about the effects of what happened. "I have noticed that my mom is becoming more open to listening to me," she says. "She has even begun to consider therapy for herself, as well."
Malvika Sheth, a 22-year-old digital fashion and beauty creator, says getting involved in after-school activities has helped her handle her constant need to be productive so she can secure a successful future for her and her Indian-American family. "I'm lucky that my mother put me in extracurriculars like dance, piano, and girl scouts growing up," she says. "These were some of my safe spaces, where I always felt I was able to self-heal from any of the mental difficulties I was facing, which could have been manifestations of generational trauma."
Today, Sheth is in therapy and has noticed her family become more open-minded because of the transparency she's fostered. "Talking about and taking steps towards bettering my mental health has opened all of our minds in a way that has opened our hearts to receiving and giving more love to each other," she says.
Each of these Gen Zers understands that breaking generational trauma doesn't happen overnight. In fact, according to Dr. Lagoy, there is no definite amount of time it typically takes to rid oneself of generational trauma because it depends on many factors, such as what the triggers were and access to help. However, many therapists agree that addressing the trauma head-on by taking control of one's mental health and working to reverse stigma can have a major impact.
Pagan says that openly talking about mental health in her family has helped them cope through difficult times. "Speaking up is the one and only way that's helped [me] bring this topic to light in my family," she says. "During COVID, when our individual struggles really showed, I made it known that it's okay to ask for help or to speak to a professional."
Coming from a place of acceptance and tolerance can also teach future generations to take care of themselves and their mind. "Children learn emotions through the behaviors of those who take care of them, so it's important to make sure that we work on our issues so we can be there for the younger generations," says Gonzalez. Ruff adds that this mindset doesn't just extend to younger generations, either, but should include marginalized and impoverished communities, too.
Mental health issues can be exacerbated by social and economic inequity, which has been proven by studies finding that those living in low-income communities show higher rates of anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Despite efforts like Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), there are still major disparities in America's health care system. Ruff believes putting pressure on elected officials can help enact change. "I don't know what the right answers are because I am not an expert, but I do know that our country's resources have to be distributed differently, so those who want help can get it," he says.
So, yes, there's a lot of progress still to be made. However, the work that these Gen Zers are doing, through normalizing therapy, having difficult conversations with family, and advocating for accessible mental health for everyone, is key to bringing awareness and breaking toxic cycles.