Just like passing down the hurt, we can pass down the healing, and help prevent future pain.

Oh wow, that was just like my mom (or dad)!  We often hear our parents echoed in our words, thoughts, and behaviors. It might be a phrase we say, a focus on good grades, or a career choice like following in the footsteps of a parent’s and grandparent’s military service. It might be behaviors we copy because that’s what mom or dad did – like the way we fold towels, let people enter traffic ahead of us, keep food and water in the car to offer homeless people we encounter, or run five miles when we’re stressed. We may not even be aware or consciously think about these things. Often they can be endearing signs of family unity. On the other hand, we can also pick up and repeat negative or harmful traits and behaviors. 

What is Generational Trauma?

“Generational trauma is a pattern of behavior that follows from one generation to the next,” says Lisa Rowe, licensed mental health therapist and CEO of Support After Abortion. Rowe named some of the more commonly known generational traumas such as substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, anger, depression, homelessness, and poverty. 

Psychologist Bertrina Olivia West Al-Mahdi, Ph.D. offered other examples of repeating behavioral patterns in Men’s Health magazine, such as having “frugal or overindulgent spending habits,” or “eating unhealthy food because it’s more affordable.” 

Family patterns of seeing “discussing feelings as a sign of weakness,” being “emotionally numb,” or being “anxious and overly protective even when there is no threat of danger” are listed as examples of “how trauma affects multiple generations” in a blog by the Austin, Texas counseling group Ensemble Therapy.

Can Abortion be a Trauma?

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) describes trauma as “challenging emotional consequences that living through a distressing event can have for an individual.” 

Al-Mahdi says, “Trauma refers to stress that’s so overwhelming and severe that it impacts your emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and other parts of your well-being.” 

The experiences women and men share with Support After Abortion – on our After Abortion Line, in our Keys to Hope and Healing after-abortion virtual support groups, and at conferences and events – certainly reflect overwhelming and challenging emotional distress, as these client examples show:

I’m dealing with miserable depression, mood swings, and very paralyzing, intrusive thoughts since my abortion. 

I feel so depressed, and I’m struggling massively to sleep, eat, or even think properly. It’s getting worse. I am seriously struggling with my mental health.

I started using marijuana to cope with the emotions, anger, grief, anxiety and depression after my girlfriend’s abortion 10 years ago. The abortion has affected my ability to form and maintain relationships. 

I struggled for 15 years with alcohol and drug abuse, acting out, poor decisions, and destruction after encouraging my girlfriend to have an abortion.

I’m full of regrets and thoughts of suicide because of how much I’m hurting after my abortion. 

CAMH explains, “the same event may be more traumatic for some people than for others.” This is true for abortion, as well. 

While media outlets regularly tell stories of people who share they had no negative effects from their abortions, our research shows that 34% of women and 71% of men report experiencing adverse changes after abortion. 

Can Abortion be a Generational Trauma?

“It seems that teenage pregnancy is generational, as well as abortion,” one former pregnancy center director told Support After Abortion. She said they frequently saw pregnant teen clients being pressured to have abortions by their mothers who said they had also gotten pregnant as a teen and experienced abortion. 

She described family patterns such as older siblings who also got pregnant young. Sometimes they had abortions. Other times the current client is under pressure to have an abortion because “my mom’s already taking care of my sister’s kid(s), and doesn’t want to deal with more.” 

She described the impact of other generational traumas on client abortion decisions. One common variable she saw was the impact of absent fathers. She said some clients felt overwhelmed by the idea of repeating their mother’s and sometimes also grandmother’s single parenting. Other clients – both male and female – would say, “I grew up without a father and I don’t want my child to experience that.”

Rowe said some families are overt in talking about abortion – both family members’ experiences and viewpoints on abortion. In other families, parents and siblings may be silent about their personal experiences, “yet make influential statements such as don’t go to prom and get pregnant, make sure you use protection, and we don’t need any babies around here.” Rowe also said it’s not uncommon for personal stories to be unspoken until another family member is facing an unintended pregnancy or shares their abortion experiences.

Support After Abortion “regularly hears stories of generational traumas and specifically abortion from participants in both our Unraveled Roots and Keys to Hope and Healing virtual support groups,” said Karin Barbito, Special Projects Manager. “In all of the groups I’ve facilitated, clients have shared experiences such as “When I got pregnant, my mom encouraged me to have an abortion because she had one and didn’t think it was a big deal” or “I knew my mom had an abortion, but it wasn’t until I had one that I learned my grandma also had an abortion.”

One Client’s Story of Generational Trauma and Abortion

Jane* shared with Support After Abortion that she grew up knowing her mother miscarried as a teen. “She told us it was a blessing,” Jane said, “and that if we ever ended up pregnant, we’d have to have an abortion.” She learned later after her abortion that her grandmother had told her mom the same thing. 

Jane said even though she had argued with her mom and told her she would never do that, when she got pregnant at 15, she immediately had an abortion. “I was scared, confused, and her words penetrated me more than I thought.” She said she never wanted to do that again, so when she got pregnant at 17, she chose to parent. 

However, Jane described her family as “dysfunctional,” and said “my mom was codependent and my dad had an addiction problem. I grew up looking for validation and love, and started having sex at 13.” She said those repeated patterns of behavior included marrying a man with addiction struggles just like her dad. “I had no support and no money, so I panicked when I got pregnant again, and I had another abortion.” 

Years later when her daughter got pregnant as a teen, Jane was the main influencer in her having an abortion. “Now she’s struggling with the same hurt and pain as my mom and I did,” Jane said.

“It was a long time before I realized how much my abortions and generational traumas had affected me,” she said. As a clinical counselor now, she sees the same patterns with her clients. She says, “We only know what we’ve been taught, what we’ve seen, what’s been modeled. We think I don’t want to be like my mom or dad, but we end up in that same place and don’t know how we got there or how to get out of it.” 

Even after going through years of therapy, Jane said entering after-abortion healing helped her “explore areas I had shoved down for years. And that brought a level of healing also to my mom, my husband, my siblings, and my kids.” The result was “where once dysfunction was embedded in my family, now healing, hope, encouragement, and support is what defines my family.”

What is the Impact of Generational Trauma?

“Generational trauma may affect one’s day-to-day life,” said Al-Mahdi, ”by causing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and other trauma-related symptoms.”

Generational trauma “can affect both your mental and physical wellness,” Psych Central says in an article medically reviewed by Matthew Boland, PhD, “including detachment, impaired self-esteem, estrangement, neglect, abuse, violence, chronic pain, certain illnesses, and behaviors that impact wellness.” 

The article states that these effects of generational trauma may be more pronounced among “people from marginalized groups — such as People of Color and those in lower socioeconomic classes.” This finding is connected to abortion-related generational trauma, as the Guttmacher Institute reports that unintended pregnancy and abortion rates are significantly higher for Black and Hispanic women than for white women and that 75% of abortion patients qualify as poor or low-income according to federal poverty levels.

How can the Cycle of Generational Trauma be Broken?

Having “adequate mental health and addiction care delivered to the adult population – especially those who are having children and raising them – is the best possible way to disrupt [generational trauma],” says Indiana University psychiatrist R. Andrew Chambers, MD in an article in IU Health. The article states that breaking generational cycles involves “understanding the issue, preventing and treating the root issues.”

Rowe advises applying the three-part process of change, often called The 3 A’s – cultivate awareness, which evolves into acceptance, that allows us to take action and make change.  


Rowe explains that awareness “helps you understand where this came from, why you have these certain beliefs, why these behaviors are part of who you are, why you’re in the relationship you’re in, etc.” 

“It’s not about going backward to blame or shame,” Rowe says, “it’s about going backward to raise an understanding of awareness.”

In the Men’s Health article, licensed mental health therapist Chase Cassine says, “Treatment starts with acknowledging what caused the trauma, and how it has negatively affected you and others in your family. 


An example of acceptance, Rowe says, may be recognizing “I was a victim of that experience, I didn’t have an idea of another way, I was afraid, or I didn’t have courage enough to stand up for myself.” 


Taking action often involves “entering into recovery, forgiving ourselves and other people, and engaging in experiences to create new understandings and mindsets,” said Rowe.

“Treatment can help you develop coping skills,” Al-Mahdi says, “and learn to replace outdated or unwanted behaviors.”

Support After Abortion’s Unraveled Roots: Exposing the Hidden Causes of Damaging Behavior is one effective way to dig deeper and gain awareness behind behaviors, past events, and generational traumas. As one client shared: 

Recently in my Unraveled Roots group I had an awakening, so to speak. I have been so focused on healing from the aftermath of my abortion that I neglected the trauma that came before it – the abandonment I felt, the abuse I endured, and the dysfunction I grew up in. Unraveled Roots helped to put the pieces together as to why I even got to the point where I was facing the abortion decision in the first place. My trauma was so much deeper than I imagined.

Supporting People Working through Generational Trauma

“People working through generational trauma need support, compassion, and empathy, as well as grace for mistakes and relapses,” Rowe said. 

Often this support must come from outside the family unit. A discussion by the Duke University Office for Institutional Equity about the PsychCentral article previously mentioned states, “A parent or grandparent who never truly healed from or explored their own trauma may find it very difficult to provide emotional support to a family member suffering from his or her own trauma.” They explain that many families use “unhealthy coping mechanisms” such as denying or minimizing the trauma, which can “set the precedence for younger generations.”

“Creating space and supporting the coping needs of people who come from lineages of trauma is often the best move,” according to PsychCentral, “rather than attempting to ‘fix’ or remove the pain.

In dealing with the intersection of generational trauma and abortion, “we need to be able to see the person and not the word abortion,” Rowe said, “It’s a human issue – we have to see the woman or man.” She continued, “Learning and understanding their why is important. It’s about helping them find healing to break the generational cycle.”

In a webinar on generational trauma and Black women, Jerrilyn Sanders of the Chalmers Center, which focuses on addressing broken relationships at the root of poverty, advised, “Don’t overlook what’s below the iceberg. There are layers of things below what you see.” She also emphasized the need to “understand that how people got here is so often not a result of their own individual decisions. They’re trapped in cycles without power or ability to make choices for themselves.”

Shay Basset, also of the Chalmers Center urged people, especially providers, to “create an atmosphere of safety and community” and to “Hear me first before crafting this narrative about me. Know me and my story before you form an opinion about who you think I am. Hear me before you help me.” Some tips she offered:

  • Remember and use the person’s name.
  • Share a meal with them, it helps tear down walls.
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable together.
  • Work through your own biases and ideas of the other person.
  • Share your own fears and vulnerabilities – not just hear their plight.
  • Discern and acknowledge the person’s strengths so they can feel valued, seen, and heard.
Toward a Healthier Future

Generational trauma impacts self-perception, relationships, parenting, communities, and abortion decisions. For those who are negatively impacted, it’s important to acknowledge and understand their experiences, and provide access to mental health care and healing resources to help them restore well-being.

“As with any form of healing or intervention, there is no one path to healing intergenerational trauma and no set definition of what it means to heal,” says PsychCentral. “Through examining what intergenerational trauma you may carry, you have the opportunity to pass along new healthy coping skills to the next generation.”

“Women and men facing unintended pregnancies are making a monumental decision in a cloud of trauma, fear, isolation, and grief,” said Rowe. “Many have generational trauma, previous abortion experiences, codependency, and other risk factors themselves, as well as within their families and circles of influence.”

Working to identify hidden patterns, behaviors, and significant past events that may be impacting today’s thoughts, actions, and decisions is crucial to breaking cycles of trauma, including abortion, and paving the way for different choices in the future.

* Name changed to protect privacy.

Next Steps

Our resource Unraveled Roots: Exposing the Hidden Causes of Damaging Behaviors helps individuals identify the root causes behind damaging choices and patterns to change their life and legacy by establishing new, healthier patterns one small step at a time. Resources include book, journal, client videos, facilitator’s guide, and facilitator training videos. A self-guided course is available for those who would like to explore on their own. And virtual support groups are available for those who would like to dig deeper along with others and a trained facilitator. There is hope. Change is possible. Life can be different.

About Support After Abortion

Support After Abortion is a nonprofit dedicated to helping men and women impacted after abortion by (1) connecting them with healing options they prefer, and (2) equipping providers with curriculum, resources, and trainings. Support After Abortion’s free resources include an After Abortion Help Line, a national therapist and counseling directory, and an introductory abortion healing program.

About the Author

Michele serves as Communications Manager for Support After Abortion. She and her husband have experienced reproductive loss through three miscarriages and stillborn twins. They live in Greenville, SC with their three daughters.



Sweeney, Erica, “17 Signs of Generational Trauma, According to Therapists,” Men’s Health, 23 Mar 2023 https://www.menshealth.com/health/a43392391/signs-of-generational-trauma-according-to-therapist (Accessed 7 Jul 2023)

Ensemble Therapy, “What is Generational Trauma and How Can We Heal From It?” 

https://www.ensembletherapy.com/blog/what-is-generational-trauma  (Accessed 7 Jul 2023)

“Trauma,” Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/trauma (Accessed 7 Jul 2023)

National Abortion Studies, Support After Abortion / ShapardResearch, 2021 https://supportafterabortion.com/resources/research/men/ (Accessed 7 Jul 2023) 

Ryder, Gina and White, Taneasha, “Inter-generational Trauma: 6 Ways It Affects Families,” PsychCentral, Updated 15 Apr 2022,, https://oie.duke.edu/inter-generational-trauma-6-ways-it-affects-families. (Accessed 7 Jul 2023)

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Generational Trauma: Breaking the Cycle of Adverse Childhood Experiences,” Indiana University Health, 23 Mar 2021, https://iuhealth.org/thrive/generational-trauma-breaking-the-cycle-of-adverse-childhood-experiences. (Accessed 7 Jul 2023)

Duke Office for Institutional Equity, “Inter-generational Trauma: 6 Ways It Affects Families,” 

https://oie.duke.edu/inter-generational-trauma-6-ways-it-affects-families (Accessed 7 Jul 2023)

“Love & Trauma: The Unique Challenges of Black Mothers,” Her Plan Webinar, 28 Feb 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgAG4P73Cwc (Accessed 8 Jul 2023)