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Unresolved trauma in parents may inhibit their ability to physically and emotionally attach and bond to their children, producing trauma in the next generation. These parents may repeat the patterns of behavior that led to their own trauma which includes ideas about parenting (Hill, 2017). Understanding characteristics such as resilience that increase or decrease susceptibility to trauma and prevent the transmission to future generations is one way to help mental health professionals who provide trauma-informed care.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress” (APA, 2012). A study of resilience in 687 adults with a history of childhood sexual abuse found that characteristics of the early family environment distinguished resilient from nonresilient abuse survivors (Liem, 1997). Individual characteristics and the physically coercive nature of the abuse experience were also important factors predictive of resilience in the abuse survivors. A study of 1,130 adolescents found that the presence of resilience factors (RFs) at age 14 were important indicators for distress at age 17. The three most important RFs identified were low brooding, low negative self-esteem, and high positive self-esteem (Fritz, 2020).

Resilience Factors and Risk Factors

There is room for discussion regarding the extent to which resilience factors and risk factors are opposing sides of the same coin. We know that childhood adversity is strongly associated with poorer resilience, and stronger resilience factors reduce mental health problems following traumatic experiences in childhood (Fritz, 2019). Granting the interplay of risk factors (traumatic childhood abuse) and resilience factors and the adverse contribution of adverse childhood experiences to lower resilience (factors such as brooding and negative self-esteem), not all children who experience repeated traumatic experiences in childhood necessarily develop complex PTSD or other psychopathology.
Resilient function as adults after childhood traumatic experiences does not seem to be a product of any single resilience factor. It seems that resilient functioning in adulthood after childhood abuse is a result of multiple influences, ranging from polygenetic factors to “top-down” supportive social networks (Ioannidis, 2020). Neurobiological findings also show differences in the emotional brain regions that may contribute to resilient functioning in adults who develop complex PTSD or other psychopathology after childhood maltreatment compared to adults who do not (Moreno-Lopez et al., 2020).

Building Intergenerational Resilience

Mental health professionals should explore treatment approaches that strengthen resilience for individuals and families. Robust ability to handle unexpected problems has a significant impact on improving mental health outcomes for adults who experienced abuse in childhood (Afifi et al., 2016), and resilience has been shown to be important in moderating the effects of intergenerational trauma (Lehrener & Yehuda, 2018). A study of second-generation Holocaust survivors in Israel revealed how emotional wounds can be mediated by meaning and purpose to provide emotional strength and resilience. While still at greater risk for emotional challenges, by normalizing or even valorizing emotional wounds, those in families with intergenerational trauma were also able to build resilience (Kidron et al., 2019). Understanding when, how, and if the therapist can help a client develop resilience from difficult early experiences and intergenerational trauma can be an important element of trauma-informed therapy.

Efforts are already underway to formalize therapeutic approaches that mitigate the negative effects of adverse childhood events on child health. These strategies seek to promote awareness, resilience, and safe, stable, nurturing relationships (Bethell et al., 2017).
More research is needed to determine the resilience factors that best promote recovery, reduction in the severity of complex PTSD in adults, and transmission to future generations.

About This SIG

The Intergenerational Trauma and Resilience Special Interest Group of ISTSS is co-chaired by Dr. Fabiana Franco, Dr. Karina Donald, Dr. Marcia Nickow, and Leisha Beardmore. This SIG primarily focuses on understanding the consequences of trauma across generations. We study and promote both vulnerability and resilience to trauma as well as the prevention of trauma transmission. We seek to support clinicians with evidence-based approaches. In treatment, clinicians can help the patient build resilience as well as utilize the patient’s own pre-existing resilience. Please consider joining the Intergenerational Trauma and Resilience Special Interest Group to learn more about intergenerational trauma in clinical practice.

How to Join This SIG 

If you are interested in joining the Intergenerational Trauma and Resilience ‎SIG: 

  1. Log in and go to your ISTSS member profile. 
  1. Go to the Listserves/Communities tab and select the SIGs you want to join from the dropdown. 
  1. Scroll down and click “next,” then “save changes.” 


Afifi, T. O., MacMillan, H. L., Taillieu, T., Turner, S., Cheung, K., Sareen, J., & Boyle, M. H. (2016). Individual- and Relationship-Level Factors Related to Better Mental Health Outcomes following Child Abuse: Results from a Nationally Representative Canadian Sample. Canadian journal of psychiatry. 61(12), 776–788. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743716651832
American Psychological Association (January 1, 2012). Building your resilience. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
Bethell C.D., Solloway M.R., Guinosso S., Hassink S., Srivastav A., Ford D., Simpson L.A. (2017). Prioritizing Possibilities for Child and Family Health: An Agenda to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences and Foster the Social and Emotional Roots of Well-being in Pediatrics. Acad Pediatr. 17(7S):S36-S50. doi: 10.1016/j.acap.2017.06.002. PMID: 28865659.
Fritz J., Stochl J., Goodyer I.M., van Harmelen A.L., Wilkinson, P.O. (2020). Embracing the positive: an examination of how well resilience factors at age 14 can predict distress at age 17. Transl Psychiatry. 10(1):272. doi:10.1038/s41398-020-00944-w
Fritz, J., Stochl, J., Fried, E. I., Goodyer, I. M., van Borkulo, C. D., Wilkinson, P. O., & van Harmelen, A. L. (2019). Unravelling the complex nature of resilience factors and their changes between early and later adolescence. BMC medicine, 17(1), 203. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-019-1430-6
Hill, T. (2017). Should mental health professionals understand intergenerational trauma? The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH). https://www.acamh.org/blog/intergenerational-trauma/
Ioannidis, K., Askelund, A. D., Kievit, R. A. & van Harmelen, A.-L. (2020). The complex neurobiology of resilient functioning after childhood maltreatment. BMC Med. 18, 32. 10.1186/s12916-020-1490-7
Kidron, C. A., Kotliar, D. M., & Kirmayer, L. J. (2019). Transmitted trauma as badge of honor: Phenomenological accounts of Holocaust descendant resilient vulnerability. Soc Sci Med., 239, 112524. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112524
Lehrner, A., & Yehuda, R. (2018). Trauma across generations and paths to adaptation and resilience. Psychological trauma : theory, research, practice and policy, 10(1), 22–29. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000302
Liem, J. H., James, J. B., O'Toole, J. G., & Boudewyn, A. C. (1997). Assessing resilience in adults with histories of childhood sexual abuse. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 67(4), 594–606. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0080257
Moreno-López, L., Ioannidis, K., Askelund, A. D., Smith, A. J., Schueler, K., & van Harmelen, A. L. (2020). The Resilient Emotional Brain: A Scoping Review of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Limbic Structure and Function in Resilient Adults With a History of Childhood Maltreatment. Biological psychiatry. Cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, 5(4), 392–402. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2019.12.008