The Impact of Generational Trauma on Muslim Children

The Impact of Generational Trauma on Muslim Children

The way we raise our children can vary depending on many factors. Our own upbringing, cultural background, education, and region in which we live can all contribute to our parenting style. But did you know that generational trauma may also play a role? In fact, some experts argue that generational trauma, also known as intergenerational trauma or transgenerational trauma, is embedded into our very genetic material, and may influence our parenting. With islamophobia running rampant worldwide and many Muslim families fleeing from countries that have been invaded, colonized, and destabilized, we should be aware of the impacts that trauma can potentially have on our future generations and work to counter its negative effects.

Historic Challenges 

Wars and political strife in the Muslim community is nothing new. As early as during the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, his followers struggled for the right to practice their faith and liberate the oppressed. Historically, Muslims were victorious against their tormentors and established thriving communities that extended from Africa and Western Europe to Asia. 

In modern times, since the so-called discovery of the New World, Muslims have been persecuted, enslaved, stripped of their identity, and transferred like property to foreign lands. Whole nations have been dismantled and their people displaced or deliberately divided to weaken their authority. More recently, since 9/11, Muslims have been demonized, mistreated, and falsely and collectively accused of terrorism in the mainstream media. Even worse, many have lost their lives, livelihood, and homes due to war, forcing them to relocate to majority-non-Muslim lands where they are an ethnic minority. They must then live out their lives as a marginalized group, working harder to provide opportunities for their children and establish themselves as productive members of society. 

Impacts of Trauma on Parenting

It is no wonder many of our youth are troubled – they have inherited it from their predecessors. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, 

“The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.” 

(Bukhari, Muslim) 

We are raising children who were born after the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, who never witnessed the panic of that day, but who still bear the brunt of the hatred that it brought forth. Their grandparents and parents were alive during that time and experienced firsthand how it changed the public’s perception and reception of Muslims in the U.S. and all over the world. The question that remains is what the ramifications on the collective psyche of Muslim parents and children may be.

University of Toledo Psychologists Dr. Mona M. Amer and Dr. Joseph D. Hovey examined anxiety and depression rates among more than 600 adult Arab-Americans in 35 states, the majority of whom were Muslims. They found that half the study participants had depression that was serious enough to need further evaluation, and a quarter of the participants reported moderate to severe anxiety. According to Dr. Amer, these rates are higher than for the general public and are due to “ongoing racial profiling, discrimination, and other stressors unique to Arabs.” Given there has been a stigma on mental health-related issues in the Muslim community, we may assume that many have kept their symptoms to themselves. Although this particular study focused on Arab families, we know that other ethnic groups within our ranks suffer the same or worse hardships – African Americans, Latinos, South Asians, etc. 

Unfortunately, mental health disease not only affects individuals, but also families. Dr. Megan Smith, co-director of the Parenting Center at the Yale Medicine Child Study Center, said, “Depression disrupts a parent’s ability to work, parent, and participate in the community.” She defined “parent” more broadly as a caregiver, including grandmothers and other family members who share in raising the child or children. She went on to say that mental health issues are functionally impairing and can have negative effects on children, affecting everything from their development and health to their academic performance. Research from the National Institute of Health reports that “depression is significantly associated with more hostile, negative parenting, and with more disengaged (withdrawn) parenting.”

Generational Trauma 

Mental health experts theorize that some trauma may trigger changes to a person’s genes or the mechanisms that control the expression of DNA. These genetic markers can then be passed down. The study of how a person’s environment causes changes that affect the way genes work is called epigenetics. Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events such as war/combat, threats of violence and death, injuries, accidents, and acts of terrorism can result in mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. All of these can have negative consequences on children and families. 

According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, the diagnostic criteria for PTSD can be a stressor such that a person is exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Dr. Joy Degruy, author, academic, and researcher, coined the term Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, or PTSS, to describe the generational trauma endured by descendants of Black slaves in the Americas (an estimated 1/3 of whom were Muslim). In her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (2005), she describes the condition as existing “when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today.” While PTSS highlights the role of institutionalized slavery in creating the condition, Degruy described how trauma affects all human beings across generations in her book. This trauma is passed down through epigenetics, extended family, and community. She said, “The community serves to reinforce both the positive and negative behaviors through the process of socialization.”

Reliance on Islamic Guidance 

It is indeed an evil cycle that continues until we learn to recognize it, both individually and as a community, and reverse its effects through education and getting appropriate treatment or help if needed. Rather than becoming complacent in being the victim, we can take control of our lives and be good parents, regardless of what happened in the past or what trauma or abuse we endured. Recognizing its negative consequences is the first step to staying focused and fighting back against generational trauma. 

Additionally, we can seek refuge in our faith to heal and keep our future generations safe from the suffering of our past by focusing on Islamic guidance in the following four areas: 

1. Remember Allah often

We can find solace in making dhikr or remembering and calling upon Allah, and in doing so, set an example for our families. Both the Quran and Sunnah are full of reminders. Allah says in the Quran, 

“Surely in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find comfort.”

(Surah Ar-Rad, 13:28) 

Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, 

“No people gather to remember Allah Almighty but that the angels surround them, cover them with mercy, send tranquility upon them, and mention them to Allah among those near to Him.” 


2. Read the Quran

There are countless ways the Quran can help us heal from our trauma. It contains reassurance from our Creator that this life is a temporary test with a mighty reward for those who endure in righteousness. It reminds us that our suffering and those of past generations will not go unnoticed, and oppressors will be taken to account on the Day of Judgement. The Quran also contains stories of the Prophets, who suffered from the most severe traumas, yet were able to persevere to carry on the message of monotheism to their families and to the masses. Allah says, 

“And each [story] We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart. And there has come to you, in this, the truth and an instruction and a reminder for the believers.”

(Surah Hud, 11:120) 

Reading about them and following their example are crucial to our very existence.

3. Make duaa

Make it a habit to ask Allah for help in all matters. There are special duaas or prayers in the Quran and the Sunnah for specific problems. One such supplication is contained in the last verse of Surah Baqarah,

 “Our Lord, do not impose blame upon us if we have forgotten or erred. Our Lord, and lay not upon us a burden like that which You laid upon those before us. Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy upon us. You are our protector, so give us victory over the disbelieving people.” 

(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:286) 

Furthermore, reciting the full verse along with this supplication can repel evil. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, 

“Whoever recites the last two verses of Surat al-Baqarah in the night, it is enough for him.” 

(Bukhari, Muslim) 

4. Spend time outdoors in reflection

We have the answers to life’s greatest questions in front of us. As we look around at the vastness of creation and recognize our purpose, we can begin to look past the things that are troubling. Allah says, 

“Have they not reflected upon their own being? Allah only created the heavens and the earth and everything in between for a purpose and an appointed term…” 

(Surah Ar-Rum, 30:8) 

Allah is in control and He plans best. 

Our past does not have to define us, and our present does not have to break us and our families. We can heal from generational trauma with counseling, faith, and patience. Allah reminds us to look back on the people in our past and extract positive lessons. If we understand that we are facing similar challenges, we will be assured that we can also overcome them, inshaAllah, God willing.

Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (including a teen and tweens). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam and culture in Spanish. She is also the Spanish content coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America’s WhyIslam Project and has also written, illustrated, and published a dozen children’s books. Díaz lives with her husband and family in Maryland.


Please remember to send salwaat on nabi. It is prophetic medicine to all physical, spiritual, mental and emotional ailments and serious disorders! 

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