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Communication and parenting styles are important when addressing intergenerational trauma

June 06, 2024
by Colin Poitras

Thirty years after genocide claimed the lives of as many as 1 million Tutsi in Rwanda, the associated trauma continues to take a psychological toll on the more than 300,000 survivors and their children. Intergenerational trauma is a significant issue in the Central African country, where it has been shown that the children of survivors are more prone to suffer depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to their peers.

A new multi-institutional study provides key insights into family psychosocial factors potentially contributing to this transmission of intergenerational trauma and suggests possible interventions to improve the health of Rwandan youth and their families.

Key Findings

  • It is important to look at genocide and mass trauma in a family context.
  • Intergenerational trauma interventions should focus on family communication, trauma communication, and parenting.
  • Community interventions should focus on how survivor parents, especially mothers, communicate to their children about their trauma.
  • Targeted interventions for mothers with PTSD should focus on family communication styles; for fathers with PTSD, they should focus on parenting styles.

Why It Matters

Given the lack of access to mental health services, the significant stigma associated with seeking mental health care, and the ongoing need to address intergenerational trauma in Rwanda, preventive services, support, and interventions are critically needed to promote the well-being of Rwandan youth and their families.

Knowledge of family psychosocial factors that mediate the transmission of trauma is crucial, as they could potentially be targets for treatment and could help guide intervention efforts.

While the current findings focus on intergenerational trauma among parents and offspring directly related to the Tutsi genocide, they may offer insights into the transmission of intergenerational trauma relative to other mass trauma events as well. The researchers indicate that further longitudinal research is necessary to probe these issues more deeply.

How It Was Done

The researchers asked 251 adult children of survivors of the 1994 Rwanda genocide to complete a cross-sectional online survey in Feb. 2021. The mean age of participants was 23. Participants were recruited through GAERG, a nationwide Rwandan organization focused on genocide education and support of the genocide survivor community. The researchers did not access parental medical records. All information about parents’ exposure (e.g. being threatened, tortured, or wounded), their symptoms, and their behaviors related to trauma were provided by the adult children and therefore represent their interpretation of their parents’ experiences.

Detailed Findings

  • For participants with survivor mothers, both maternal trauma exposure and maternal PTSD were indirectly associated with children’s PTSD via maternal trauma communication – specifically, nonverbal and guilt-inducing communication, which is characterized as communication that puts undue blame on children for their parents' experiences.
  • Maternal PTSD was indirectly associated with children’s PTSD, anxiety, and depression symptoms through family communication styles.
  • For participants with survivor fathers, paternal PTSD symptoms were indirectly associated with children’s anxiety and depression symptoms via paternal parenting styles – specifically, abusive and indifferent parenting.

What the Researchers Say

Dr. Sarah Lowe: “It was an honor to work alongside Jessica Bonumwezi, who is from Rwanda and is an incoming assistant professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland, and our colleagues from GAERG and Montclair State University on this project. The study goes beyond prior work demonstrating the phenomenon of intergenerational trauma by identifying modifiable family factors that could serve as targets for future interventions.”

Go Deeper

The study appears in the journal Social Science & Medicine.


The study was supported by the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University and the New Jersey Psychological Association.


Jessica L. Bonumwezi, University of Maryland; Sally L. Grapin, Monclair State University; Monica Uddin, University of South Florida; Samantha Coyle, Montclair State University; D'Artagnan Habintwali, Kigali Genocide Memorial; Sarah R. Lowe, Yale School of Public Health.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on June 06, 2024