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Intergenerational Trauma: Is Your Childhood Affecting Your Kids?

By Dina Dimitriou Koutsela

For many years, psychological trauma was believed to result only when a serious event happened, like sexual or physical abuse, war, violent crime, terrorist attack, etc. In more recent years, though, we have better-understood trauma. We now know that psychological or emotional trauma can affect a person's psyche after experiencing a distressing event.

Ultimately, trauma is subjective. Two people might go through the same distressing event, but not both will be equally affected. For example, two children growing up in a dysfunctional family might not experience the same distress. Even though we don't necessarily know why the National Institute of Mental Health believes it is due to some protective factors like resilience.

It can be challenging to be a parent, even under the best circumstances. We get trained for everything in our lives, apart from how to parent our kids! We lack basic skills to understand our kids but more importantly, we lack the skills to understand ourselves. One of the essential skills we should have as parents is the ability to reflect on our behavior and understand why we behave the way we do. To solve problems, instead of losing our temper with our kids, we need to understand our parenting triggers and deal with the emotions underneath them.

But what happens when our triggers are deep and complex?

My experience with intergenerational trauma

I grew up in a small village in Cyprus. My parents were mainly working, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Our life was pretty simple and peaceful. I went to school and spent the afternoon with my grandparents and siblings. I was always a sensitive child, which my family always perceived as a weakness. We didn't say 'I love you’ to each other, and we didn't share our feelings. A common trait of many families. But that was our norm. We didn't know anything different. Maybe, I should mention here that my grandparents and parents (and the whole of Cyprus at that time) experienced war and were displaced in their own country, having to rebuild and restart their lives all over again.

What is intergenerational trauma

According to intergenerational trauma theory, exposure to early unpleasant experiences, such as child abuse, parental imprisonment or divorce, substance abuse, poverty, war, or natural disasters, affects people so profoundly that future generations may be affected. Also referred to as generational trauma or transgenerational trauma, this type is often unrecognized. This allows for the trauma to continue and pass from generation to generation.

An example would be a great-grandmother who was placed in a concentration camp in Germany and was forced to "cut off" her emotions to cope with the situation. As a result, this grandmother may interact with her family in a detached manner emotionally.

Characteristics of intergenerational trauma

· Poor parent-child relationships and emotional attachment

· High levels of stress

· Low self-esteem

· Depression, anxiety, self-harm behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse

· Approval seeking behavior

· Negative repeated patterns of behavior

Additionally, there are several symptoms associated with generational trauma, including hypervigilance, a sense of a shortened future, mistrust, aloofness, panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, an impaired fight-or-flight response, and difficulties with self-confidence.

Parents and grandparents who have not healed from or explored their trauma may have difficulty providing emotional support to family members experiencing their trauma. Many families employ two unhealthy coping mechanisms to cope with intergenerational trauma:

1. Denial: refusing to acknowledge the traumatic event happened

2. Minimization: minimizing the impact of the traumatic experience by making it appear smaller than it is

From genetics to dinner table conversations, trauma can be transmitted in various ways.

Breaking the cycle

A trauma cycle happens when someone experiences trauma and creates a similar experience for the children in their care. Observing family members or interacting with them can teach kids unhealthy patterns. For example, if your parents have suffered trauma, they might avoid distress and conflict. They might act passively or passive-aggressively toward each other. They might have trouble asserting their needs constructively or solving problems directly. These ways of coping and interacting are then taught to kids.

Changing unhealthy communication habits might take intentional effort if you grew up with unhealthy communication patterns.

To break the cycle, you need to:

1. Acknowledge the trauma. The main reason intergenerational trauma goes unresolved is people choose to ignore and suppress it. Try to discuss trauma with the people involved, but if they are not open, you might need to fight this alone. Breaking the cycle is not easy, but it is worth it, especially when raising your own family.

2. Talk to a professional. Even though many mental health providers are not adequately educated and trained on intergenerational trauma, describe your trauma adequately. This way, they will understand how best to support you. A professional can help you with processing the trauma, unpacking the impact, and helping you learn to respond healthily.

3. Connect with supportive people. Not everyone will understand your struggles and experiences but finding people who are empathetic or have been through the same (especially if you have been affected as a community) can be extremely beneficial and cathartic.

Please remember that it didn't start with you, but it can end with you. The majority of people on this earth carry intergenerational trauma, but we also carry intergenerational wisdom- we just need to work a bit harder to find it!


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