Individual and Intergenerational Trauma

ImageBy Chelsey Langlinais 

What does trauma look like on an individual and cultural level?

While preparing for our Service Learning trip there are many different things that as a group and individually we need to be aware of before we leave, and while we are in Cambodia. An important and central factor in the work we will be doing is trauma. But trauma does not only mean that we will be working with people who have experienced trauma themselves, there is also transgenerational trauma, which the Cambodian people hold as a nation, inflicted on their ancestors by the Khmer Rouge. 

According to the American Psychological Association trauma is defined as an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea”.

Transgenerational trauma is defined as trauma that was transferred from the first generation of survivors that have experienced or witnessed it directly in the past to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors.  Steinberg states that survivors can directly and indirectly share their feelings of anxiety with their offspring (1989).

What types of art therapy could be useful for working with trauma survivors in Cambodia?

For survivors, Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy (Malchiodi, 2013) is useful in 4 main ways including, the mind and body respond to traumatic events; 2.recognition that symptoms are adaptive coping strategies rather than pathology; 3.emphasis on cultural sensitivity and empowerment; 4.helping to move individuals from being not only survivors, but ultimately to becoming “thrivers” through skill building, support networks, and resilience enhancement.

According to Tan, art therapy has been proven to improve the mental health of women who have been trafficked by giving them purpose and empowering them. Using art can allow for difficult emotions to be felt and expressed in a safe environment (pp. 296).

While in Cambodia we will be using art interventions to assist and teach these skills through group work and experiential opportunities. We will be working closely with the staff members at our partner organizations, to best assist the clientele in appropriate ways. Mainly we will be working with women who have been sex-trafficked, children who have been orphaned, and poverty stricken nation in general, using art therapy to assist in these healing processes.  

Examples of possible art interventions will include a puppet theater, and handmade puppets, mask making, creating dream catchers, etc. These interventions are directly helpful in working with trafficking because of the ability of metaphor to happen, and also for re-authoring of their stories to empower these women and children. In doing these interventions we hope to leave behind the tools and skills for the participants to continue the work of art therapy after we leave. “The power of art is its potential to express metaphorical life experiences of the conscious and unconscious, the individual and collective, through the creative process”(Essame, pp.  99).  

Also in the case of transgenerational trauma the“…arts provide a reference for individual and collective cultural identity… (and)…play a key role in empowering Cambodian people, who suffered a loss of cultural dignity during and after the Khmer Rouge Holocaust…”(Herbert, pp. 220).  Individual trauma could also be directly related to, or more deeply rooted within someone, because of the transgenerational trauma that Cambodian people already suffer with.  This is why it is vital for this trip to be aware of the multiple kinds of trauma that could be affecting the work we will be doing.

Examples of the art therapy techniques we will be practicing include group work, and utilizing an open studio model using art as therapy. We will provide stations with pre-planned art directives, providing opportunities to create together as a group or individually in the group setting. The goal for this kind of open studio model will be for connection to happen, a sense of community and fun, but also to create objects with sustainable materials (bracelets, scarves, eye pillows) that will be sold so they can better provide for their families.

What is my goal on this trip?

My goal on this trip is not to try and “fix” anything, because who am I to say what needs fixing, I only wish to offer what I can to people who may benefit from it. I want to share my passion for creating and the therapeutic power that art holds. I also wish to extend my heart and my hands to the people we will be working with, feel the heaviness, see the resiliency, and make a connection by using art as a meeting ground and communication tool. I also hope to gain a deeper awareness of the power art can have for myself by creating my own empathy art throughout this trip.



Artwork by Emma Ehrenthal (2014).

Essame, C. (2012). Collective versus individualist societies and the impact of Asian values on art therapy in Singapore. In D.Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.91-101). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Herbert, C. (2012). The integration of arts therapy and traditional Cambodian arts and rituals in recovery from political-societal trauma. In In D.Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.209-220). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Malchiodi, C.(2013, March 06).Retrieved from

Steinberg, A. (1989). Holocaust survivors and their children: A review of the clinical literature. In P. Marcus & A. Rosenberg (Eds.), Healing their wounds: Psychotherapy with Holocaust survivors and their families (pp.24-48). New York: Praegar

Tan,L. (2012). Surviving Shame: Engaging art therapy with trafficked survivors in south East Asia. In D. Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.283-296). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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