Acculturation and Intergenerational Trauma: The Elephant in the Room

A Hybrid Editorial-Commentary on an Underkept Issue


Children growing up with immigrant parents encounter a crossroads during their development. Should they adhere to the cultural practices of their parents, or should they assimilate to Western practices? If they deviate from parents’ practices, they risk disrupting the family dynamic. Moreover, how do they come to terms with trauma passed down through generations, that they have been taught to ignore?

Fast Facts

Intergenerational trauma generally defined outside the context of acculturation:

  • Unresolved emotions and thoughts about a traumatic event

  • Negative repeated patterns of behaviour including beliefs about parenting

  • Untreated or poorly treated substance abuse or severe mental illness

  • Poor parent-child relationships and emotional attachment

  • Complicated personality traits or personality disorders

  • Content attitude with the ways things are within the family


For many families immigrating to a new country, adjusting to different customs and practices can be challenging. Parenting techniques are amongst one of the issues immigrants struggle with modifying. However, the potential spillover of trauma and authoritative parenting techniques has been recently observed to be the source of lasting emotional damage in children of immigrant families. This damage is often overlooked or disregarded due to cultural stereotypes. The balance between managing acculturation and breaking free of intergenerational trauma is a perpetually looming “elephant in the room” for modern day young adults.


In Western cultures, independence is valued. Realizing one’s unique qualities and pursuing independent dreams is encouraged. In contrast, most Eastern cultures value collectivism. Preserving family harmony is essential, and the boundary between self and other is intentionally blurred. A person’s individual interests are considered a shared entity with the rest of the family. Naturally, immigrant children face an uphill battle when forced to grapple between adjusting to the individualistic Western society they are surrounded by, and the collectivist ideals in their household. In contrast, literature that samples non-immigrant families shows that intergenerational conflict does not have a negative effect on family cohesion and these children report little to no impact from such trauma. It’s clear that a problem exists, but why exactly should intergenerational trauma even matter? If children are able to assimilate to a new environment in Western society, why shouldn’t they be able to easily break free of practices that are unrelated to their new reference culture?


"It’s clear that a problem exists, but why exactly should intergenerational trauma even matter? If children are able to assimilate to a new environment in Western society, why shouldn’t they be able to easily break free of practices that are unrelated to their new reference culture?"

The answer is simple yet complex. To box intergenerational trauma into a categorical type variable (i.e parental violence, authoritative disciplinary style, emotional abuse) only begins to scratch the surface of the issue. The problem is multifactorial. To understand it, it’s important to first unpack the sociocultural construct. As stated in an explorative article by Lee et al., the sociocultural construct is configured through our emotional reality, which we build based on dominant values that are collectively inherited in our environment through assigning meaning to events and behaviours. This means that for an immigrant parent, the decision to discipline children harshly is not as simple as a binary yes or no choice. Their decision to enforce authoritative parenting relates to the feeling and desire to feel dominant and powerful in the household. This then translates to respect within their community. It can be thought of as a positive feedback loop so to say. By no means do all immigrant parents or families operate under this model. But more often than not, to some extent, immigrant children continue to carry the burden of intergenerational trauma with them throughout adulthood because they are unable to untangle themselves from the complex web of values that each of those traumatic events is related to.


So, what constitutes intergenerational trauma? Is it the shear existence of a cultural divide between parents and children, or is it more than that? In the context of acculturation and immigrant families, intergenerational trauma can be any negative experience lived by one generation that is passed on to the next. This can be tangible or intangible. For example, in some Eastern cultures outwardly showing love, pride, or attachment towards children is considered a sign of weakness. This can be a form of emotional trauma passed on through generations. Rigid techniques such as restrictive or authoritarian parenting styles (i.e hitting, slapping, and other physical abuse) may have been commonplace in immigrant cultures, and are then passed down through generations as an acceptable practice. These methods are invasive and at times patronizing. In some cultures, an obligatory mutual reciprocity exists between parents and children. In return for the opportunity to receive a proper education in a Western country, children are expected to fulfill their parents “wishes” or “dreams” by excelling academically or pursuing a particular career path. This expectation places undue mental hardship on the child. They may enter into an endless cycle of self-doubt or incompetency if they feel as though they’ve failed to meet parents’ expectations.


"This expectation places undue mental hardship on the child. They may enter into an endless cycle of self-doubt or incompetency if they feel as though they’ve failed to meet parents’ expectations."

Emotional trauma may extend to a variety of other expectations such as responsibility for family welfare, dating and/or marrying within the ethnic group, respecting the elderly, gender roles, and more. Overall, the feelings of alienation, frustration, and guilt that immigrant children face permeate into their own parenting styles and later influence the way they raise their own kids. And so the pattern of intergenerational trauma continues.


The glass ceiling in intergenerational trauma within immigrant families is the need for open communication. More often than not, after moving to a new country, immigrant parents may feel as though they lack control over aspects of their life: an unfamiliar social environment, a foreign language, etc. As a result, their children become an outlet for them to exercise their sense of authority. This manifests as non-open communication, closed-off discussions, bottled emotions, resentment, anger, frustration, and the like. In the midst of this transition, positive and reformative parenting techniques are lost in translation, and the trauma is swept under the rug. Parents do not have the emotional resources to support children’s developmental needs which leads to exacerbated mental health outcomes. The solution to breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma in immigrant families, is putting a focus on building a child’s sense of autonomy and self-esteem. These aren’t easy conversations to have, especially when a family’s original cultural values are not in alignment with the change that’s sought after.


"The solution to breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma in immigrant families, is putting a focus on building a child’s sense of autonomy and self-esteem."

Having a third party involved may be the most effective course of action. A therapist can help dissolve the boundaries between the parent child dyad. They can help each party navigate the others’ cultural perspectives in a non-judgemental way. Most importantly, a therapist can help jaded immigrant parents reframe their emotions in a cultural context, to facilitate open communication with their children. Immigrant families should be educated on ways of expressing needs and love such that they don’t become traumatic inducers down the line. Cultural humility and openness must be guiding principles for both parties in the immigrant parent-child relationship. Helping today’s young adults come to terms with the repressed traumatic inducers they’ve experienced may be the first and most ground-breaking step towards ending the cycle of acculturation and intergenerational trauma.



Written By: Rebecca Lena

References

1. https://www.acamh.org/blog/intergenerational-trauma/#:~:text=These%20unhealthy%20behaviors%20then%20become,behavior%20including%20beliefs%20about%20parenting

2. https://medium.com/community-mental-health/acculturation-discrepancies-and-intergenerational-conflict-in-chinese-american-families-bf2b8a65e4dd

3. https://medium.com/change-your-mind/intergenerational-trauma-43bbe5f1937a

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