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The importance of transgenerational transmission for the functioning of adults

A family is the fundamental and primary environment in which we grow up. Apart from parents, who have a direct influence on our upbringing, the entire generational family system also plays an important role.

The family heritage developed over many generations, which is passed on in the form of truths or views enabling us to interpret the surrounding reality, is particularly important. This heritage is made of experiences, family histories, and sometimes traumas and crises experienced by the members of the family system over the years. It helps them to maintain the homeostasis of the system, protects its members against threats from the outside world and creates a network of mutual connections and loyalties. Obviously, much depends on the time in which a given family lives and the superior systems that determine its functioning. The founder of the contextual approach to family therapy, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (1973), emphasises the fundamental importance of family loyalty. The mechanism of loyalty is very powerful as it compels a person unconscious of it to fulfil the family heritage even against his or her own interests. On the one hand, the family system expects one to implement the rules and values set by it. On the other, a sense of loyalty helps people to maintain family ties, provides a sense of security and creates the family identity. Loyalty itself is not dysfunctional but it may become so when it hinders the natural development of individuals, making it difficult for them to cope with difficulties and accomplish life tasks.

Types of transgenerational transmission

Transgenerational transmission in the family can be functional, i.e. conducive to development, or dysfunctional, i.e. hindering development. What it becomes depends on whether the family is flexible or orthodox in following the messages passed on. It seems that the healthiest messages are the adaptive ones as they give people a certain margin of freedom to adapt to the current situation, permitting change and moving away from the heritage that makes them dysfunctional at a given stage of the family’s life. There are three types of messages distinguished in relevant studies (Wasilewska M., Kuleta-Krzyszkowiak M., 2021):

A message to fight – ‘the world belongs to the brave’, ‘in our family there are no losers, only winners

Members of such family systems will be encouraged to face various adversities and confront the difficulties that come their way. These messages tell them to be strong and courageous, and not to give up. Their dysfunctionality may lie in the fact that, when devoid of strength or tired, such an individual may not allow himself or herself to be weak or to let go. Therefore, he or she will feel guilty when life forces him or her to withdraw and give up. This can lead to depression.

A message to be submissive – ‘who lives by the sword, dies by the sword’, ‘no sword cuts off a bowed head”.

People with such an attitude will withdraw in difficult crisis situations. Avoiding risk, they will not get involved in solving them, remaining passive and conservative instead. The consequence of such an attitude may be an inability to satisfy important developmental needs and life minimalism preventing you from developing your full potential or achieving fulfilment in life, thus condemning yourself to mediocrity and poor quality.

A message to flee – ‘escape when there is still time’, ‘evil never sleeps

This transmission type imposes a very fearful narrative about the world and people, emphasising the weakness and vulnerability of an individual in the face of challenges. The trap inherent in such messages is the psychological truth that ‘the more afraid I am, the faster I run away, the faster I run away, the more afraid I am, the weaker and more vulnerable I am’. People with such a heritage develop an anxious attitude to life, they minimise challenges as they lose a lot of resources in the struggle with anxiety.


In conclusion, it may be stated that attitudes adopted by people entering adulthood towards themselves and the world are to a large extent conditioned by transgenerational transmission from previous generations. This inheritance, unique for each family, forms a specific image of reality, thus conditioning a certain perception of it, not always consistent with the truth. Determining which messages support you and which block you on the way to self-fulfilment is of fundamental importance for a person’s satisfactory functioning in his or her life. That is why it is worth finding out about your family heritage, both the verbal one, reflected in parables, family stories and proverbs, and the non-verbal one expressed in attitudes towards life, behaviour and activities undertaken. Awareness of your transgenerational inheritance will allow you to decide whether you accept it in its entirety or choose only those elements which are relevant to the times in which you live.

Reference literature:

Bertalanffy, L.(1968). General System Theory, George Braziller Inc.

Boszormenyi-Nagy, I.G. Spark. (1973). Invisible loyalties: Reciprocity in intergenerational

family therapy. New York.

Wasilewska, M., Kuleta, M. (2008), Niewidzialne lojalności w systemie rodzinnym – rozważania wokół koncepcji Ivana Boszormenyi-Nagy’ego, [in:] Wymiary przestrzeni życiowej współczesnej rodziny, [ed.] G. Makiełło-Jarża, Kraków.

Wasilewska M., Tomanek P. (2018). Psychologiczne i kulturowe aspekty mitów i przekazów

rodzinnych w kontekście ich wpływu na procesy postrzegania i interpretacji

rzeczywistości – perspektywa interdyscyplinarna, [in:] SŁOWIANIE.

KULTURA. JĘZYK Wybrane zagadnienia z języków, literatur i kultur słowiańskich

i germańskich (ed.) D. Dziadosz i A. Krzanowska, Szczecin.

Wasilewska, M., Kuleta, M (2021), Dziedzictwo rodzinne jako skutek i przyczyna kryzysów w: Od psychologii kryzysu do interwencji kryzysowej i środowiskowej, (ed.) D. Jasiecka-Kubacka, M. Kuleta-Krzyszkowiak, Toruń.

About the author

Monika Wasilewska, Ph D – assistant professor at the Institute of Applied Psychology. Her research interests focus on the psychology of the family, transgenerational transmission processes and family messages influencing the functioning of an individual in various social roles. Since 2000 she has had her own private psychological practice working with both individual clients and couples. Her publications include ‘Depresja porodowa’ (1999) and ‘Jak być szczęśliwym dorosłym bez szczęśliwego dzieciństwa’(2021). She has also authored or coauthored 50 academic papers related to her research into parentification processes in the family, family conditioning in undertaking adult tasks and transgenerational transmission.