Generational Trauma

Of all the challenges that having a mental health disorder brings, my greatest concern lies with recognizing the impact of generational (intergenerational) trauma and attempting to stop the cycle. I use the word attempt because painful feelings seem to have a mind of their own and without addressing them, they have a habit of growing and affecting others. In fact, thoughts and feelings can become so ingrained within a person or family that we can find ourselves struggling with traumas not experienced first hand. This is generational trauma. 

Having no knowledge of this in 2003, I placed no importance on emotional self-care during my first pregnancy and allowed two aspects of my past affected me horribly: my mother’s verbalizations about the horrors of my own birth and lack of attachment to her, and the internal feelings that come with my lifelong rejection of her touch. I recall her ending her storytelling with descriptions of my baby sister’s easy birth and her ability to attach right away. This made complete sense to my child’s mind, as clearly my sister was good and I was bad – bad at being born and bad at accepting my mother’s love. During my first pregnancy, I was terrified that my son and I would experience a similar birth and that I’d deliver a baby who was just like me. Meanwhile, my son spent the first nine months of his life developing inside a body so anxious that it unknowingly perpetuated the cycle of generational trauma. 

Had I known that trauma could be passed between generations at the time, I like to think I’d have worked harder to address it – both for me and for my son. How I would have managed that, I really don’t know. I didn’t have a therapist. I didn’t realize I had a mental health problem. I certainly didn’t suspect that I had a severe dissociative disorder. 

Fortunately, my son’s birth was relatively easy and I got to hold him straight away. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before it became clear that he struggled with anxiety. Whether this could have been prevented had I taken more self-care is difficult to know. I try not to blame myself. I certainly don’t pass the blame onto him in the same way that my mother did to me. As my son has grown and matured, we’ve worked through his anxiety together and with the help of therapists. 

The road to understanding my family’s legacy of trauma has been long and difficult, and is far from complete. Having a dissociative disorder complicates the situation: dissociation is designed to protect a person’s mind from itself. Exploring my own mind and fishing around for hidden memories is hard and painful work. Memories tend to come in fragments that my therapist helps piece together. Other memories arrive through the body, presenting as childlike feelings and sensations. Some knit together through dreams. Some are remembered and then forgotten.

So does all of this mean?

It means that the psychological, physical and emotional effects of trauma can be transferred from one generation to another. Generational trauma stems from a traumatic event that began years before the current generation and has impacted the way we understand, cope with, and heal from our present-day wounds. Happily, therapists are becoming increasingly aware of this cycle and society is giving it a more serious focus than we did previously. 

What might cause generational trauma?

  • Enslavement
  • Genocide
  • Domestic violence 
  • Sexual abuse
  • Extreme poverty 
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)

So how might this show itself in families?

Based on my family-experiences and those seen within the classroom:

  • A family might not discuss problems, sweeping them beneath the carpet 
  • Crying or discussing feelings might be considered babyish or a sign of weakness
  • Some families might be over-aware of danger or threat, and be overly-protective of or scared for their children
  • Family members might seem emotionally numb or lack the ability to show affection
  • Families might support unhealthy boundaries and fail to understand each member’s role
  • A family might have learned unhealthy survival behaviors

What can we do to prevent the cycle of generational trauma?

  • Acknowledge that everybody has feelings and that it’s okay to experience these
  • Accept that it is okay for everyone to cry, even as an adult and especially when a child
  • Challenge yourself to reevaluate your perception of threat
  • Look at your family through the lens of affection and intimacy
  • Spend time thinking about and establishing healthy boundaries. Support the youngest family members to understand and establish their own boundaries
  • Consider what survival behaviors you and your family might have employed or still be employing
  • Find a therapist for support

Read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk