Guest blog post by Stephanie Caballero Novak LCSW, CRSS
When you think of your legacy, you probably imagine leaving some contribution, being remembered for an achievement, or providing an inheritance to specific family members. But you might leave another legacy – through trauma. Sometimes family wounds can be so ingrained that they are passed down from generation to generation through transgenerational trauma.
What Is Trauma
Trauma affects you emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically. It is a threat to your safety and survival – the basic needs of any human being. If safety and survival needs are not met, it is almost impossible to attend to other needs such as love, belonging, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment.
When you encounter a traumatic or threatening experience, your body responds to protect you. It does this by going into a fight, flight, or freeze response. These are perfectly normal, physiological responses your body undergoes when your survival feels threatened. The fight, flight, or freeze response aim to keep you alive.
Related Reading: Why Understanding What Trauma Does to the Brain Helps You Heal
However, sometimes you can experience such a distressing event that you remain in a survival state even though the trauma event has passed. This can happen because your body did not get to complete its survival response successfully. If you leave this trauma unresolved, it can manifest as harmful behaviors, thoughts, or emotions. This is where the cycle of transgenerational trauma is set in motion.
Intergenerational Trauma Definition
Transgenerational trauma begins when a family’s traumatic event lacks resolution and closure, setting the stage for future generations who are far removed from the event to be affected. Unhealthy patterns created by this trauma become a family norm. The past trauma continues to weave itself throughout the lineage.
Understanding intergenerational trauma can help you identify how stressors from generations past can accompany you into the future, impacting you and even the way you parent. Through learned behavior, we can unintentionally pass harmful, trauma-fueled traits to our children.
Trauma and Attachment Theory
Here is an example. A single father exhibits unhealthy alcohol use and physically and emotionally abuses his children when intoxicated. The children in this situation not only learn that physical violence and aggression is an acceptable way to handle anger. But they also learn that their emotional needs and overall well-being do not matter to their father.
The children quickly learn that this parent is unreliable, unpredictable, and someone to fear. These experiences can result in children with low self-worth displaying a mix of issues stemming from near constant fear, shame, guilt, and anger.
To survive, the children learn to rely on themselves, fearful of creating chaos involving their father. The children begin exhibiting codependent behavior that they then carry with them into adulthood. Eventually they carry into parenting their own children. This codependent behavior manifests as people-pleasing, putting others’ needs in front of your own, difficulty with trusting, unhealthy communication and coping skills, lack of boundaries, etc.
Related Reading: How Childhood Trauma Affects Parenting Styles
As children raised with this trauma grow up, they may develop characteristics similar to their father. Like in this case, substance use dependency, and ultimately exhibit similar dysfunctional behavior when raising their own children.
Thus, the cycle of trauma continues. And have you thought about what the father might have acquired from his parents?
The Role of Epigenetics
So if trauma in the attachment relationship gets the transgenerational trauma ball rolling, the role of epigenetics ensures the ball rolls through future generations. In other words, it’s not just nurture, it’s nature, too.
Epigenetics looks at how the environment and other factors can change the way that genes are expressed. Studies increasingly show that trauma in your parents’ lives can manifest in your genetic code.
A now famous epigenetic study comes from the Dutch hunger winter, a famine experienced in the Netherlands in the final months of World War II. The children of women pregnant during the food shortages died earlier than peers born just before, and had higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and schizophrenia. So the legacy of these mothers’ trauma from the famine got passed on to their children.
And it isn’t just trauma experienced in adulthood that can get passed on epigenetically. It is now clear that a range of adverse childhood experiences can affect the genes that are involved with stress and immune responses, as well as mental and physical health, even in the next generation.
How to Start Healing from Trauma
I’m sure at this point you are asking yourself, “But are there ways to heal family wounds and break free of the cycle of transgenerational trauma?” The answer is yes!
First, commend yourself for having the insight and strength to move beyond the trauma. It’s difficult to admit that you have unhealthy behaviors. And it takes courage to want to work on changing those behaviors.
Related Reading: How to Release Trauma Trapped in the Body
Next, be gentle with yourself and tend to your inner child. Ask yourself the following questions:
- While honoring my survival patterns, what can I as a caring adult now offer my wounded inner child?
- What did I need from my caretaker(s) as a child that I didn’t receive?
- How can I re-parent myself to help heal the wounds of the past?
These are meaningful questions that need to be handled delicately, slowly, and – ideally – while connected with others. Because feeling unsafe is at the center of trauma, it can be very helpful to find a therapist who provides a sense of safety, understanding, and empathy. A safe therapist can help you learn new coping skills to manage complicated feelings, add insight to self-identified problems, encourage self-growth and awareness, and support you through times of emotional dysregulation.
How Long Does Healing From Trauma Take?
Unfortunately, there is no easy or specific path to healing your trauma. Just as every individual experiences trauma differently, every individual also heals uniquely. Ending the cycle of family suffering can feel burdensome, confusing, and emotional. Again, this is another reason to have support while doing trauma work.
Healing transgenerational trauma takes hard work. But stopping the chain of trauma and achieving personal freedom from family pain are the ultimate rewards. By permitting yourself to recover and practicing self-compassion, you can allow yourself to feel worthy of the love, kindness, and joy you and your inner child deserve. You are not alone.
Trauma treatment with a qualified therapist will help you progress through your healing journey. If you are in the Chicagoland area, reach out to a Life Care Wellness counselor at (630) 423-5935 for help and support. We have therapists with specialized training in trauma treatment, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing (SE), and Rapid Resolution Therapy (RRT). You do not need to go through this alone.
Stephanie Caballero Novak LCSW, CRSS
Stephanie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Recovery Support Specialist. She who works with older adolescents and adults, as well as families. Meeting individuals where they are at, honoring their trauma responses, and slowly helping them identify their own inner strength, is at the center of Stephanie’s practice. Stephanie has worked with various communities in an array of settings since 2006, including high-risk trauma survivors with severe and persistent mental health disorders and/or substance use disorders.