Crossing borders: a systematic review identifying potential mechanisms of intergenerational trauma transmission in asylum-seeking and refugee families

European Journal of Psychotraumatology

Natalie Flanagan, Aine Travers, Frederique Vallières, Maj Hansen, Rory Halpin, Greg Sheaf, Nina Rottmann & Anna Thit Johnsen


Background: As displacement and forced migration continue to exhibit global growth trends, new and surviving generations of children are being born and spending their formative years in host countries. Refugee children who have not been exposed to traumatic events may still be at risk for adverse developmental and mental health outcomes via intergenerational trauma transmission.

Objective: To identify and synthesize potential mechanisms of intergenerational trauma transmission in forcibly displaced families where parents have experienced direct war-related trauma exposure, but children have no history of direct trauma exposure.

Methods: PRISMA systematic review guidelines were adhered to. Searches were conducted across seven major databases and included quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods literature from 1945-2019. The search resulted in 752 citations and 8 studies (n = 1,684) met review inclusion criteria.

Results: Findings suggest that parental trauma exposure and trauma sequelae indirectly affect child well-being via mechanisms of insecure attachment; maladaptive parenting styles; diminished parental emotional availability; decreased family functioning; accumulation of family stressors; dysfunctional intra-family communication styles and severity of parental symptomology.

Conclusion: There is a distinct need to support parents who have been exposed to war trauma and their children. Further research is needed to assess independent intergenerational effects of trauma transmission in this population.

Keywords: war trauma; forcibly displaced; intergenerational transmission; risk; protective

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