Parenting in the best of circumstances can be a challenge. But when you factor in intergenerational trauma, it adds a unique layer of complexity that can be difficult to break.
When I was in college, I volunteered at a women’s domestic violence shelter, and it was one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had to date. Day after day, I helped the staff take in women in crisis who needed help escaping from abusive circumstances that put the safety of their children and themselves at risk. But what I found most heartbreaking was that the counselor shared that this cycle of abuse was so common, and it especially affected families with intergenerational trauma.
It was then that my interest peaked—not because it was a compelling concept but because the concept hit way too close to home.
So what is “intergenerational trauma?”
The term intergenerational trauma (or generational trauma) was created to explain the transmission of traumatic or oppressive effects within a family from grandparent to parent, then to future children. When you think of intergenerational trauma, picture great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents and how the circumstances of each generation influenced the next. It can happen within abusive family units or even unintentionally when a parent is emotionally unstable and unable to provide their child with a healthy upbringing after what they faced.
My experience with intergenerational trauma
I grew up in a very strict immigrant household, and my parents, their parents, and every generation beforehand grew up in very small towns where they struggled with poverty. Unfortunately, there was also a pattern of parents disciplining children through heavy-handed corporal punishment. It was so ingrained in the culture to use physical violence to keep children in line that school teachers didn’t hesitate to use violence to make sure children cooperated (and was not considered abuse at the time).
I found myself conflicted about physical punishment once I became pregnant. I had to ask myself if I thought it was healthy to discipline my child using the same methods I was subjected to as a child. Although I was taught—just like my parents were taught by their parents—that this was how things were supposed to be in order to raise respectful and responsible children, I never felt comfortable subjecting my children to similar methods. It was only after I had severe panic attacks when my husband raised his voice at our children for misbehaving that I realized that it was a reaction due to the intergenerational trauma I experienced.
…As an adult, I now had that power to teach my children the skills my parents couldn’t teach me.
That was when I decided to stop this seemingly endless cycle, and as an adult, I now had that power to teach my children the skills my parents couldn’t teach me. I know in my heart that my parents did their best and loved me dearly, but they simply did not have the support and tools to put labels on the trauma they experienced as children.
How to begin breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma
The process of healing generational trauma is important so you can feel safe with others, especially your future family with your partner and children. But to do this, we need to break free of the cycles where parents who are abused then abuse their children, and so on and so forth. If we don’t address these issues that are so often swept under the rug, it puts families at risk of continuing this unhealthy cycle of trauma.
Here are some ways to help you break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
Recognize the problem
Like so many things in life, we cannot truly heal until we recognize the problem and the extent of its effects on our lives. It can be easy to say, “Oh, yeah, my mom had a tough life, so that’s why she XYZ” without truly recognizing how that impacted your childhood and now adulthood. In my case, my family dynamic felt normal. I was used to emotions running high. Physical and mental abuse didn’t feel like abuse; it felt like discipline that I was meant to hate because I was a child lashing out. It took growing up, leaving the environment, and learning that not all families behaved like mine for me to recognize that what I experienced was tied to my family’s struggle with intergenerational trauma. Finally having the perspective to see it for what it was allowed me to do something about it.
Seek out therapy
If you experienced trauma of any kind, there are so many therapists who understand the deep wounds of intergenerational trauma within families. Therapy can be helpful for many parents, but for coping with trauma, it is often a necessary tool. With the help of a competent therapist, you can learn ways to cope with anxiety and aggression as you heal and in turn stop the cycle from repeating in future generations.
Parent yourself along with your kids
One technique that I learned in therapy taught me the importance of parenting myself along with my children. As my children grow and I use healthy parenting strategies, this can help foster loving communication that will foster resilience in children. To parent oneself is a concept that allows adults to help provide support and a loving environment where you can learn to express your feelings and set boundaries without fear. As you work through trauma and build healthy relationships, you can help your children build trusting relationships.
Other resources to help
While therapy is so important when healing from this type of trauma, here are some additional resources that can help.
Research has shown that yoga can be an effective way to cope with the symptoms of PTSD. Here’s a free online practice to try.