If you aren’t naming and breaking the cycles that have entangled you, you are participating in them. It’s true in most systems we are part of, but especially in families. Researchers call it inter-generational trauma and have shown that the trauma of a parent is literally passed genetically to offspring (this Simple Wikipedia article on epigenetic has an easy-to-understand summary of epigenetics for those of us who get tripped up by technical language used by geneticists).

illustrated image showing two women

Personally, I’m absolutely fascinated by how, long before science proved that the trauma of one generation impacts the expression of genes in the following generation, psychology research demonstrated repeating patterns of victimization in the successive generation, and medicine demonstrated the heritability of behavioral disorders, folklore gave us the language of “family curses.”  The Enlightenment moved “respectable thought” away from intuition and folklore towards hard sciences, but now that science is often confirming intuitive wisdom, will we listen for the places where intuition might shine light in places that science has not yet been?

Trauma, Dysfunction, and Cycles

Some pushback when I initially posted this image to Instagram were statements to the effect that “not all families” could resonate with this. I think this is fair critique if we limit the understanding to cycles of abuser/victim dysfunction- but intergenerational trauma is way, way bigger than cycles of abuse or dysfunction.

If you wonder if your family may have been impacted, ask yourself:

☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced the death of a child?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced a miscarriage?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family immigrated to a new country?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family lost a significant piece of their cultural heritage?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced a hate crime, racism, or stigmatization?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced sexual violence
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced addiction
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced abuse or domestic violence
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced the premature death of a sibling or parent?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family sent a family member into active combat?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family lived through a war fought in their homeland?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family spent a portion of their life in poverty
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family experienced divorce?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family lost a job?
☐  Has anyone in three generations of my family been estranged from someone they loved?
☐  Is there a topic in my family that we aren’t allowed to talk about because it’s too upsetting to someone?

If you answered yes to any of these, someone in your family line experienced trauma. Some individuals are far more resilient than others, and some families are better at minimizing the impact on successive generations, but adaptive coping patterns leave an imprint. Thoughtful living asks that we consider how our parents, our parent’s parents, and their parents adaptively coped with traumas, and how that impacts how we live in the world now.


User jennk_ asked a thoughtful question in the Instagram comments, “Are there any burdens that we can place on the next generation if we focus too much of our energy on breaking a cycle?”  My reply was: It’s such a kind question! I think it’s possible to focus so hard on “fixing” that our kids miss the fact that life is process, and that mindful living isn’t fixing something and moving on, but means constantly looking at systems and structured and beliefs and reevaluating what is good and just.

 

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