4 ways to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma

By https://www.sandiegopsychiatricsociety.org/author
March 24, 2023

The Washington Post

By Jason Wu

March 23, 2023

A parent’s unresolved trauma can affect a child’s well-being. By cultivating a healthy relationship with anger, making space for all feelings, knowing that true love comes with understanding and by meeting your child’s need, you can break the cycle.

(Celia Jacobs for The Washington Post)

Unresolved trauma from one generation affects the well-being of future generations. While there are many ways intergenerational trauma is passed down, it is often transmitted through the parent-child relationship.

In an ideal relationship, the parent is consistently loving, attentive and responsive to the child’s needs, which helps the child feel safe and secure, knowing the parent is someone they can rely on. This leads to a secure attachment style, characterized by a positive view of the self, better emotion regulation skills and an ability to maintain relationships based on trust and healthy boundaries.

Unresolved trauma, however, can leave parents emotionally unavailable or even unsafe, and their children may experience chronic and repeated abuse or neglect. This is sometimes referred to as complex trauma, which can result in a wide range of impairments, including emotional problems, substance use disorders or low self-worth characterized by shame and guilt.

As a trauma-informed therapist, I often see the same, recurring issues in some of my clients who are dealing with intergenerational trauma. While there is no substitute for working with a trauma-informed therapist experienced in trauma-specific therapies, I hope my insights can be of help to anyone trying to end the legacy of trauma in their families.

Reconnect with anger in a healthy way

Anger plays an important role in identifying and addressing our needs as well as in setting boundaries, so we need to cultivate a better relationship with anger to protect and advocate for ourselves.

Many people with complex trauma grew up with parents who expressed anger through violence or abusive language. These early experiences with their parents taught them to view anger as a “bad” emotion, so as adults, they often suppress their anger and people-please to avoid conflict. And when the anger gets too much to keep inside, it emerges as uncontrollable outbursts.

I like to think of anger as a loyal puppy that wants to protect our yard and barks at unwanted visitors. Suppressing our anger is like putting the puppy in a cage, which not only leaves our yard vulnerable to trespassers, but also keeps the puppy from learning to communicate in healthier ways.

I remind my patients that the puppy is acting up because it’s been caged, and it wants to protect our space because it loves us. If we let it out of the cage, properly train it and build a good relationship with it, the puppy will become an invaluable companion.

Once people are able to reconnect with their anger, learn to assert themselves effectively and set appropriate boundaries, they often have less self-doubt, more confidence and more balanced and meaningful relationships.

Make space for all your feelings

Many of my patients feel stuck in their feelings about their parents. They may be sad and angry for all the times their parents hurt them, but they also may recall the times they felt cared for.

Some feel guilty about the sacrifices their parents made to provide for them. Perhaps their parents were refugees, grew up in poverty or violence, or had abusive parents themselves, so my patients don’t feel comfortable blaming their parents for their shortcomings.

Understandably, they often get overwhelmed trying to make sense of these conflicting emotions.

But are they conflicting? What if instead of trying to figure out which one is the “right” feeling to have, we focus on making room for all of them to coexist?

A simple yet challenging exercise to practice making room for multiple emotions is to use the word “and” instead of “but” when describing your emotions: I feel hurt by my parent’s behavior, and I appreciate the things they have done for me. I feel sad about what I experienced in my childhood, and I feel sad that my parent was also deprived of one.

Instead of getting stuck in a battle between our feelings, we can make space for all of them, accept them and move on.

Know that true love comes with understanding

Many people condone hurtful behavior from their parents because they are their parents. When I point out those behaviors, my patients usually say, “Well, yeah, that was hurtful, but I know they mean well, and I know they love me.”

This acceptance has sad repercussions for my patients. Many often end up in relationships in which they are similarly badly treated by their partners.

As a child, we rely on our parents to understand and meet our needs. When that doesn’t happen, we may start to believe that our needs aren’t important and that we shouldn’t expect them to be met in any relationship.

I share with them a story told by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. One day, the monk was in his temple chanting, when he realized someone had left a durian, a fruit with a strong smell, as a gift on the offerings table.

He tried to continue with his practice, but the smell was so overpowering that he could not concentrate. He covered the durian with a bowl-shaped bell. The person may have meant well, but it still caused suffering — the monk describes the smell of durian as “horrendous.”

The intention isn’t enough; true love must come with understanding. When my patients accept this lesson, they are able to advocate for themselves with their partners and in other relationships.

Understand and meet your child’s needs

Some of my patients have children, and they worry they will hurt their children the same way their parents hurt them.

I tell them that research has found that understanding and meeting a child’s needs just 50 percent of the time is enough for them to develop in a healthy way. By working through their own trauma and learning about the needs of their children, they can give their children the love they need.

By doing so, they would be the ones breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma in their families.


Comments are closed.