Abstract: Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Trauma

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Xiafei Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
Mo Yee Lee, PhD, Professor; PhD program director, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Camille Quinn, PhD, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Background. Children living with parents who have trauma histories tend to develop compromised behavioral health outcomes and trauma symptoms. Breaking the cycle of inter-generational trauma is relevant to racial and social justice, because trauma diminishes life opportunities across generations and hinders social mobility. To inform practitioners of effective approaches to work with parents who have trauma histories and break the cycle of trauma, this study has two specific aims: Identify the pathways from parents’ adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to their child/ren’s outcomes; Explore behavioral health intervention strategies that can counteract trauma transmission.

Methods. This study included both quantitative and qualitative research components. The quantitative inquiry employed a cross-sectional survey design to examine the pathways of trauma transmission. The sample of parent participants (N=202) for the quantitative inquiry was recruited from an online data collection platform – Amazon Mechanical Turk. Structural equation modelling with Mplus 7 identified the mechanisms of trauma transmission. To enrich the understanding of the cycle of intergenerational trauma, 12 parent participants from low-income families recruited from a mental health agency answered corresponding questions regarding families’ lived experiences during in-depth interviews. Participants shared their perceptions on helpful/unhelpful strategies about breaking the cycle of inter-generational trauma. Grounded theory was employed in the processes of data collection, coding, and analysis. ATLAS.Ti 8 was used for data management and coding. Strategies of expert consultation, audit trail, peer debriefing, and member checking were employed to ensure the trustworthiness.

Results. The quantitative inquiry showed parental childhood maltreatment ACEs was directly and indirectly associated with child behavioral problems and functioning with two important mediators, i.e., parental emotion regulation and mentalization (parents’ capacity to understand their child’s mental states). There was no direct or indirect effect of parental household dysfunction related ACEs on child outcomes. The qualitative inquiry revealed information to inform specific clinical strategies and facilitate the therapeutic process of breaking the trauma transmission: building an authentic therapeutic relationship, employing a strengths-based approach, and creating facilitating systems-level factors. Families’ lived experience also showed the influence of neighborhood environment on family lives.

Conclusions and Implications. This study exemplifies the use of social work science for social change and suggests a commitment at the policy level to build community resilience to break family-level trauma transmission. Our findings on pathways of trauma transmission highlighted the critical role of improving parental emotion regulation and parental mentalization. Based on clients’ perspectives, we also identified effective clinical strategies to treat families experiencing intergenerational trauma. This study informs an intergenerational approach in terms of screening and intervention, so professionals can effectively work for families to alleviate the enduring negative effects of generational trauma, to reduce prohibitive social expenditures on mental health services, and to promote social justice. Social service systems should ensure that services being delivered consistently and continuously in a mentally and physically safe environment. It is also necessary to facilitate inter-agency collaborations among social service systems to increase a continuum of care.