Few emotions in life are as profound as those stemming from your childhood experiences. But what you may not realize is that the roots of those experiences may go further than just your own childhood.
The roots of some of these emotions may be lost in the dark corners of your pre-verbal experience, but the branches go every which way. Some hold beautiful memories, while others are broken off and left with sharp edges that you may still find yourself getting caught on from time to time.
Many people don’t even try to uncover the painful truths of their childhood because they feel ill-prepared to deal with what examining their trauma might reveal, and what it would mean to address it.
Trauma is never a simple topic. However, one sure thing is that the quality of nurturance you receive in childhood powerfully shapes your development — and it is often your parent’s own childhood experiences that dictate it.
The Hidden, Yet Unrelenting Power of Intergenerational Trauma
As a psychotherapist, I help clients address emotional issues they are currently dealing with and want to work through. In some cases, though, emotional struggles are so deeply ingrained in a person that they are likely the result of what is called intergenerational trauma.
Intergenerational trauma is a psychological term used to describe how trauma gets passed through generations.
Whether you realize it or not, your childhood experiences and how your parents communicated with you have imprinted specific behavioral and thought patterns onto you. Because the psychological effects of trauma often transfer from one generation to another, this can seriously impact how you understand and cope with suffering.
When trauma is left unhealed, it will only produce more suffering and color every relationship and experience going forward, including with your children. The key to preventing intergenerational trauma is recognizing the problem and intervening before more damage can occur.
Therefore, if your goal is to be the best version of yourself, you must start by taking an honest inventory of any traumas that may be holding you back in the first place. Otherwise, you may end up projecting old wounds or patterns onto others.
Breaking the Intergenerational Trauma Cycle
Addressing these experiences is essential to breaking the intergenerational trauma cycle. Keep in mind, however, that the goal isn’t necessarily to find fault with your family. Instead, it is to examine how you wish to evolve and change compared to their relational styles.
Imagine a woman who lived through Nazi Germany. Because of that experience, she may have learned to cut off her emotions and, in an effort to cope with that, developed an unhealthy relationship with food. This trauma response was then passed down to her daughter, who later adopted her mother’s emotionally distant behaviors and maladaptive coping mechanisms — and so the cycle would continue until someone was brave enough to break it.
Even if you don’t have family who lived through the horrors of a concentration camp, you may still be carrying old wounds that are now infringing on your happiness — and which you are at risk of passing down to your own children.
For example, maybe you were a parent-pleaser who always tried to keep your parents from feeling angry or disappointed. Perhaps you are highly sensitive and could feel how much your parents suffered, and, as a result, you learned to minimize your needs as much as possible.
If any of this sounds familiar, then I encourage you to analyze how this parent-pleasing tendency has bled into your relational style as an adult. Do you continue this trend by now monitoring your partner’s moods and giving more of yourself than you’re getting back in return — just to ensure that things remain tension-free? Or, maybe you had a quick-to-anger parent, so you learned to tread lightly and be so self-sufficient that now you avoid true intimacy altogether.
The Lasting Effects (and Warning Signs) of Passed Down Trauma
A wealth of research points to how intergenerational trauma and some forms of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can lead to avoidant or anxious personality disorders, as well as struggles with forming healthy and stable relationships.
The Centers for Diseases Prevention and Control, defines ACEs as “traumatic experiences, such as neglect, experiencing or witnessing violence, and having a family member attempt or die by suicide, that occur in childhood (birth to 17) that can affect children for years and impact their life opportunities.” The CDC goes on to state, however, that “we can prevent ACEs, and we can educate parents, communities, and policymakers about how to help children grow up in a safe and stable environment.” (Note: You can take the ACEs quiz to assess your risk and learn more about how it may affect you).
To further understand how trauma often gets passed down through generations, you need only to look at the beliefs you hold.
For example, you may feel that you are somehow unlovable or that you cannot trust others. Holding such views may be especially true for you if your childhood felt chaotic, such as in cases in which one or more of your caretakers were alcoholics. Being an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA) is a trauma that may manifest in your life in many ways. For example, you may be attracted to partners whose love you must “earn,” as opposed to being attracted to partners who love you unconditionally.
Ultimately, a vital component of healing from trauma and developing a secure attachment is recognizing childhood events’ impact on your sense of self — it means taking responsibility for how your past has shaped you.
In his book, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, author and trauma specialist Peter A. Levine notes that those who’ve experienced intergenerational trauma may exhibit the following symptoms:
- Panic attacks, anxiety, and phobias
- Mental “blankness” or spaced-out feelings
- Avoidance behavior (avoiding places, activities, memories, or people)
- Attraction to dangerous situations
- Addictive behaviors (overeating, drinking, smoking, etc.)
- Exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
- Amnesia and forgetfulness
- Inability to love, nurture, or bond with other individuals
- Fear of dying or having a shortened life
- Self-mutilation (severe abuse, self-inflicted cutting, etc.)
- Loss of sustaining beliefs (spiritual, religious, interpersonal)
If you can identify with any of these, try not to judge yourself for where you are today. Even though your childhood programming has had a significant impact on how you think, feel, and act, you can begin to overcome this by examining and working through your experiences.
The Road to Intergenerational Trauma Recovery
Recovering from this sort of deep trauma can be a challenging task, which is why many people choose not to take it on. But you are different from most people.
The mere fact that you’ve read this article to this point demonstrates that you are bold enough to examine your wounds and that you choose to heal from the deeply engrained patterns you experienced in childhood.
If you are already on this journey of healing, then you know that it is challenging work. You are reworking yourself on various levels simultaneously — from rewiring the limbic system of the brain to examining your core beliefs, and from reevaluating your sense of self to how you relate to others.
But the rewards are worth it. As you address the trauma, you’ll find the tension release throughout your body, you’ll rediscover your ability to authentically connect with others, you’ll be able to earn a better living, and you’ll get restful nights of sleep.
As you can see, trauma quite literally impacts everything. And even though intergenerational trauma is a challenging cycle to break, you know that it will continue to impact your life, and your children’s life, and their children’s lives — unless, that is, you choose to break the cycle.
You are up for this challenge because you know deep down that you deserve a happy and rewarding life — and for this, I commend you!