Intergenerational trauma refers to familial trauma passed down through generations. This concept explains why one family's trauma often repeats itself once children grow up and have children of their own. This transmission is often subconscious, but it can lead to generations of emotional anguish, denial, hostility, and low self-esteem.
Learning about the effects of intergenerational trauma can help you better understand your past (particularly if you struggle with a certain traumatic event), and it can support your mental health healing.
Why Does Intergenerational Trauma Happen?
Intergenerational trauma isn't intentional, but it is insidious, and most family members don't want to speak about it.
When someone experiences trauma, it fundamentally affects their emotional, mental, and physical health. It also often stunts their development and affects how safe they feel with others.
Children who experience trauma often grow up without realistic models of what a healthy parent-child relationship should actually look like. They're left to "fill in the blanks" when it comes to taking care of themselves or others. But the toxic stress associated with their traumatic experiences makes it hard to cope well.
This explains why abuse victims may recreate patterns of abuse with their own children. Even though they remember the damaging effects of being harmed, they don't necessarily know how to cope with their stress in other ways.
Furthermore, trauma can also be indirect, and it doesn't always include physical abuse. If, for example, your parents were passive in their communication and shielded you from knowing the real issues in the home, you might grow up struggling to assert your needs in your adult relationships. You might overcompensate with people-pleasing tendencies as a way to keep the peace with others.
Intergenerational trauma can take the form of:
repeated patterns of substance abuse or addiction
historical trauma related to cultural oppression
inherited mental health conditions like depression or anxiety
domestic violence and child abuse
financial stress or poverty
neglect from one generation to the next
How Do You Break Generational Trauma Cycles?
First things first, breaking generational trauma isn't easy. Even if you promised you'd never act like your parents or grandparents, these cycles are deeply reinforced, and it's easy to fall into familiar patterns without recognizing what you're doing.
However, it is possible to heal from trauma. Here are some steps to reclaim your mental health and potentially change the outcome for future generations:
Acknowledge What Happened
Many people experience unresolved trauma because they don't identify or talk about what happened to them. They sometimes justify it as "normal," or they assume that disclosing their feelings coincides with being weak or acting like a victim.
But acknowledging what happened- even if you don't necessarily attach emotion to it- is a profound step toward healing. Your truth matters, and you can't change what you don't identify.
Consider How You Normally Cope
How do you reinforce complex trauma in your current life? Which patterns have you taken from family members that you no longer want to be associated with?
If you want to break the cycle, you have to commit to unpacking the effects of past trauma and changing how you react in everyday situations. This work takes time, and it's often worth doing with a mental health professional.
Because trauma can be so entrenched in one's identity (even if they don't realize it), you may need support in changing how you react and cope with adversity.
Attune to Your Own Needs
If you experienced significant forms of intergenerational trauma, you may feel disconnected from your own values, feelings, and needs. You will need to take time to reclaim what matters to you.
Attuning to your own needs can sometimes look like reparenting yourself. For some people, this means getting in touch with their inner child and considering what that their younger self needed.
For others, it's simply allowing them to acknowledge their feelings and take care of them in real time.
Try to Form Healthy Attachments
Building healthy relationships with others is another strategy for coping with intergenerational trauma. You need to surround yourself with people who don't reinforce the abusive or toxic messages you are used to believing.
Keep in mind these attachments can take time to build, and you may find them awkward at first. People with histories of trauma often struggle trust with trust. They either trust people far too easily (and without considering the risks). Or, they remain so guarded that they never let anyone else in.
It's okay to start slowly and with one person at a time. Therapy is also a great starting point for building a healthy relationship with a trusted professional.
Set Your Boundaries
Many families resist when later generations try to break the cycle. This can be especially true when parents or grandparents aren't willing to get help for themselves or acknowledge their own traumatic experiences.
Unfortunately, the person who chooses to change their ways may be punished by others. This is often known as scapegoating, and it's common in dysfunctional family systems.
With that, it's paramount that you assess and consider the boundaries you want to set with others. Your values and needs matter, and if you want to avoid repeating traumatic patterns, you will need to act bravely.
How We Help Treat Generational Trauma
Adverse childhood experiences are a significant risk factor for mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other behavioral conditions. These traumatic events are part of your story, but they don't need to define your well-being or compromise your future happiness.
At Resurface Group, we support families by talking about the impacts of intergenerational transmission and reviewing the adverse effects of what happened in the past. We teach people the nuts and bolts of open and honest communication and aim to help empower family members to begin healing and build a healthy sense of attachment with one another.
Our trauma-informed therapists focus on helping people heal from trauma and build self-esteem. You can create a new narrative for your life and stop intergenerational trauma from impacting future generations.
We are here to support your growth! Contact us today to learn more about our unique services.