Trans-generational trauma: Why we should be on the lookout

Volunteers carry a trauma victim during the commemoration event last year. File

Born a few days after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that claimed his father, Maurice Ntugungira, 25, describes his childhood as having been weaved with threads of fear, anger, anxiety and curiosity.

“I learned about my father’s death even though my mother whose relatives were also killed in the Genocide never wanted to talk about it. During the commemoration, she switched the TV off and would avoid anything that reminded her of the horrific history,” he recalls.


It was this absence of information, however, that made Ntugungira more curious that he began reading every material about the Genocide that he could come across, asking questions and following testimonies during the commemoration.


“I was curious to know because being a survivor is a reality I lived with. I couldn’t comprehend how a human being can kill another. The testimonies to me sounded like a movie and this affected me emotionally,” he said.


With time, he added, stories began affecting him differently and are now in a state of being grateful for life and he has let go of the anger and resentment for the perpetrator who killed his father.

“With time my mother has healed and started talking about these things. It is really hard to learn but it is eye-opening and very informative of how the journey was,” he shared.

A study conducted last year by Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC) estimates that the prevalence of trauma among Genocide survivors aged 24-35 stands at 18.5 per cent. These were either not yet born by the time of the Genocide or were very young.

Intergenerational trauma according to Germaine Bukuru, a clinical psychologist, is in most cases unconsciously and unwittingly transmitted across generations.

In my line of work, we receive many cases of PTSD, and among them are cases of young people who in most cases did not witness the horrible situation.

They can’t explain their pain but this is not validated by what their parents explain to them because they were told that everything is fine or they repeatedly observe some negative thoughts, anger, fear, numbness, or are always in conflict with surrounding people, problems in relationships or unresolved pain. These negative experiences from parents affect their children, she explained.

Another study conducted last year by a group of Rwandan psychologists shows that the rate of transmission is increasing with a direct link between parents’ Past Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and their offspring’s PTSD.

Celestin Mutuyimana, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in Kigali and one of the researchers explained that while there is some evidence that intergenerational trauma may be passed along genetically, transmission is typically tied to the family environment, unspoken messages that are conveyed nonetheless, and parenting limitations stemming from the trauma itself.

In some cases, parents who have been traumatized may be ill-equipped to calm and comfort their children.

“We found that parents suffering from PTSD are exposed to authoritarian parenting style of overprotection, harsh punishment or violence expose children to having PTSD too. PTSD symptoms like dehumanisation, hopeless, sleep disturbance that parents exhibit, could form a preoccupied attachment with their children,” he says.

He explained that there are three kinds of parents who deal with trauma. The first category is parents who explain what happened in detail without omitting anything even the most traumatic events they encountered.

“This is because they don’t have any trusted adult to share with and so their children are their only way to escape the traumatic memories they have. Consequently their children could absorb their parents’ traumatic experience and consider it as their own.”

The other category is the ones that keep quiet and don’t want to share anything with their children, who in turn are traumatised by their parents’ symptoms, behaviors, relationship and attitudes; through reflection, imitation or withdrawal.

With the last category they try to explain to their children according to their age and minimise the traumatic effect as much as possible and build a sense of resilience.

“Within the last group, we find a minimum number of traumatised children and the parents have a positive parenting style. To date, parents try to help their children in the cited ways but most of them are not even aware of possible transmission,” he said.

Dealing with transmission

Clinical psychologist, Bukuru, is of the view that healing the pain of intergenerational trauma is only possible if aided by psychotherapy, as well as spiritual, family and societal support.

One way, in addition to seeking professional help, she said, is by parents learning how to handle their emotions, as this will help them to behave correctly before their children as well as share their history in a way their children will understand without creating confusion.

“They cannot avoid the pain but they need to find positive meaning in the trauma and lessons drawn from it which will protect them from further traumatic situations, and cope with trauma.”

Aline Sangwa Ntaganira, who was born a year after the Genocide, believes that the means in which young people like her learned the history of the Genocide against the Tutsi, can be ameliorated.

“It is understandably difficult to tell a young child about such a tragedy that befell the country, and it is also difficult for that child to understand. This history can be further strengthened in schools, so that students can learn it better at a young age, this would help parents, who are not ready to open up, and the country at large, by fighting Genocide ideology, she said.

A mental health survey done by RBC found that despite the rate of PTSD and depression among survivors, the rate of service use is five per cent.

As such, Mutuyimana suggests that the Government should invest in improving trauma healing services and positive parenting, while service providers ought to be aware of inherited trauma and pay attention.

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