How Generational Trauma Can Destroy Families

If you were mistreated as a child, would it surprise you to learn that your parent or parents most likely suffered from that same form of mistreatment in their own childhoods?

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
How Generational Trauma Can Destroy Families

People who have been mistreated by parents or other caregivers can live with those issues for the rest of their life. But in reality, those motivations to mistreat children didn’t come out of nowhere – the adults themselves might have been subjected to some form of trauma and never took the steps to heal from it, thereby transposing their own trauma onto their children. This is what’s known as generational trauma: one generation passing trauma on to another. It’s a cyclical pattern of issues used in examining family dynamics in counseling and social work. It’s also an extremely serious threat to the healthy emotional and mental development of kids, and if left untreated, can destroy families.

First of All, What Is Trauma?

There’s been a large cultural discussion in recent years surrounding mental health, and our readiness to label anything unpleasant or inconvenient as “traumatic.” While this tendency necessitates a whole other discussion, let’s actually talk about what trauma is.

Mental health professionals, advocates, counselors, and social workers all acknowledge an individual’s trauma, whatever it may be, as a smaller component of their larger life experience. (This is what’s known as a trauma-informed approach to caring for that individual.) But how do we even know if something is traumatic?

Think about your own life experiences. You might have been in a bad car wreck as a teenager which you still remember, but you also might have grown up with a parent who was a substance abuser or have been assaulted by a friend. In this way, we distinguish between “little t” trauma and “big T” Trauma.

Little t trauma is an ongoing experience that can cause distress, conflict, and anxiety.

Little t trauma is an ongoing experience that can cause distress and conflict and result in the development of anxiety, among other issues. While it isn’t on the same impact level as big T Trauma, it can still have a lasting impact, like seeing parents go through a divorce, being bullied in school, or having a non-life-threatening injury – and lengthy duration of exposure to this type can ultimately cause more damage than big T Trauma.

Big T Trauma is what we most often think of when we think of trauma. Big T Traumatic experiences include being the victim of a crime, experiencing violence, witnessing a death, or being subjected to abuse. As opposed to little t trauma which is associated with ongoing conflict, big T Trauma is associated with singularly impacting events, and it often results in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s important to understand what trauma is (and what it isn’t) as we now begin looking at generational trauma.

How Your Parents’ Trauma Can Influence Yours

Generational trauma is, in a word, complicated, to pinpoint, diagnose, treat, and even understand. Here’s how Támara Hill, a licensed counselor, explains it: “For example, a mother who is struggling with her daughter’s sexual abuse might also have been sexually abused by her father, who may have also been sexually abused by his father. The impact of generational trauma is significant. A parent or grandparent who never truly healed from or explored their own trauma may find it very difficult to provide emotional support to a family member suffering from his or her own trauma.” 

Generational trauma hinders how a parent relates and communicates to their child, and also negatively impacts their own perceptions of themselves. What’s even more damaging is the inevitable coping mechanisms that arise out of not treating or acknowledging this trauma. Individuals may cope with these issues by completely denying them, refusing to recognize the trauma event which happened, or by minimization, through which they minimize what happened and how it impacted them. 

Older generations set the precedent for how the future ones cope with emotions and acknowledge pain.

The issue with generational trauma is how it not only affects the individuals subjected to it, but also how it affects their children and even their grandchildren. This impact can manifest in several harmful ways. The older generations set the precedent for how the future ones function in coping with emotions, acknowledge pain, how they interact with others, etc. It can also result in mental, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of children, if that abuse is a trauma the parents also suffered from. Minimizing and ignoring trauma and other unhealthy coping mechanisms are learned behaviors, and can be passed down and inherited by children in the way that genetic or other familial characteristics are.

How To Break the Cycle

The good thing about learned behaviors is that they can be unlearned, and it’s crucial to the development of children that they’re recognized and treated.

Trauma is passed down, yes, but resilience can be too. Experts agree that open, encouraging, and caring communication builds resilience. When older generations open up about their trauma experiences to their children or grandchildren, they encourage open lines of communication where the recipients of that messaging are thereby raised in environments that foster acceptance and growth.

Open, encouraging, and caring communication builds resilience.

Recovery from trauma doesn’t have to be done alone. Recovery can be a team effort, where each participant’s experiences are shared and supported. Older generations who have issues with being open about unpleasant experiences may take issue with this – but that indifference creates a snowball effect, where the trauma is covered up by the next generation and then the next, gathering power and influence over the family dynamic while damaging generations upon generations. 

Closing Thoughts

Trauma can wreck a family unit, but that damage doesn’t have to be permanent and in fact, more damage is done if that experience is allowed to dictate how the family dynamic functions.

If you were raised by damaged parents which resulted in trauma in your own life, there’s a reason why. Many parents try to raise their kids the best way that they know how, but if that knowledge is informed by repressed emotions, denial, and minimization, their best efforts will only result in more turmoil.

Generational trauma can leave our families in a frozen fright-or-flight state. When we’re scared or frightened, those first instincts dictate our responses, but those fight or flight responses can last for generations. The cycle can and should be broken, and it starts with how we talk to our families and ourselves.

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