Have you ever wondered why you do some of the things you do? Do you have behavior quirks or thought patterns that you can’t seem to shake, but they have been with you for as long as you can remember?
You may be suffering from the impact of intergenerational trauma, which is “trauma that is passed from a trauma survivor to their descendants.” It is also sometimes called transgenerational or multigenerational trauma.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
You can think of intergenerational trauma as something happened to your parents (or your grandparents, or your great-grandparents, etc.) that is still affecting you today. You may or may not realize it is impacting you, but you have developed habits and ways of thinking about the world that have been passed down to you from your predecessors.
There are so many examples of intergenerational trauma, and it can be caused by just about any kind of trauma a person can go through.
A clear and common example is the cycle of poverty. Those who grow up in impoverished circumstances tend to continue the cycle with their kids, because it is very hard to get out of poverty. Even if they break the cycle physically and come into money and a more comfortable life, they may carry on the “poverty mindset” where they are always fearful of not having enough because they have been so conditioned.
Physical punishment can also become an intergenerational trauma. People who were punished physically as children may either continue that physical punishment on their kids, or be so traumatized that they don’t ever discipline their kids at all for fear of traumatizing them. Either way, the kids are experiencing the impact of the trauma on their parents.
Another great example comes from the Historical record we find in the Old Testament. When the Israelites, who have encountered generation after generation of hardship and slavery are promised freedom, they don’t dare to believe it because all they have known is oppression.
This is best exemplified in Exodus 6, when after Moses speaks the words of hope and freedom that God offers them, “they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery” (Exodus 6:9).
Breaking the Cycle
You can see how just about any kind of trauma can be passed on through generations. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can break the cycle by acknowledging the trauma that happened (whether in our lifetime or not) and working towards healing. How do we do this? Here are a few ways:
A genogram is a tool that therapists use to identify trauma in a family tree. It is a diagram of your family members that includes a timeline of crises or traumatic events that may have happened in previous generations. Using a genogram can help you pinpoint what happened when, and recognize behaviors or mindsets that are rooted in the traumatic event(s) and are still affecting your life.
You may not know what happened in previous generations, so you may need to ask family members (at your discretion). It can be hard to discuss traumatic events that happened in the past, but it is the key to overcoming intergenerational trauma.
Family therapy can be extremely effective in overcoming intergenerational trauma, if you can get everyone on board. If everyone is amenable, you will have a safe space to talk through what may have happened in the past and how it has affected all of you. It is so valuable to hear the perspectives of those in the generations before you to see how they have been impacted, and thus how they are impacting you.
It may be more beneficial for you to seek out therapy for yourself if your relationship with your family is toxic or reinforces the trauma, or if they are unwilling to join you in therapy. You can still gain tools and skills to overcome the impact the trauma has had on you, and you will be able to break free from the cycle.
Freeing the Next Generation
Even if you are stuck in the cycle of intergenerational trauma, you can still get out of it and pass on a different legacy to your kids. Don’t believe the lie that you can never change––with intentionality and hard work, you can heal from your trauma and break the negative cycle.
Please reach out for help if you feel trapped in your family history. You are not alone and there is always hope for healing and change. We are here to help you.