Breaking Generational Trauma: A Guide

Rowan Tuffs

How to Break the Chain of Generational Trauma and Heal Negative Patterns

When you look back on your childhood from where you are now in life, what kind of feelings bloom inside of you? Many folks would say they miss the simplicity and freedom of being a kid, or being consistently surrounded by the love of family members. They feel fondness for their memories and are likely happy when recalling their past. That’s the societal expectation, at the very least. 

Reality doesn’t often follow the idealized version of life, though. For some people, childhood carries negative connotations and is a past that is not fondly missed. 

If you happen to be someone who struggles with the effects of generational trauma, then you know how difficult it can be to think about the relationship you had with your parents growing up. You also know how damaging generational trauma can be for children who experience it in their home environments. This is why it is imperative that you confront your trauma and break the cycle for future generations.  

Manifestation of Generational Trauma

Parents pass down a lot to their children, including valuables, behaviors, and genes. These can affect the development of young children and, with the combination of the environment they grow up in, helps to shape them into unique individuals who are reminiscent of their parents.

However, not everything that parents pass on to their children can be considered pleasant. The trauma that parents have, and even the collective trauma from a family’s history, can indirectly influence children present in the household, despite their lack of exposure to the initial event.   

A woman sits alone by a body of water holding a coffee cup.
General trauma can manifest in many different ways. Emotional detachment and socially withdrawn behaviors are both signs of generational trauma.

How Does Trauma Come To Be?

When your ancestors have experienced shared or individual trauma, there is a very real possibility that their trauma will linger for generations to come. This can have extremely negative effects on the family since the trauma will continue to exist and manifest in damaging behaviors.

Many different aspects of trauma can be inherited by future generations. Memories about the incident may be passed on through stories, giving everyone in the family knowledge of the past event. When trauma is not shared directly, though, it will express itself in other ways. Poorly managed behaviors that occur within the family may find their origin in the incident that originally triggered a traumatic response.     

Those who suffer from untreated PTSD will find unhealthy outlets for their trauma, such as substance abuse and apathy towards their family. Having parents who are emotionally absent and who cannot sufficiently provide support for their children will cause tension in the parent-child relationship, commonly resulting in the child experiencing difficulty when it comes time for them to express their feelings. 

This cycle, when left untreated, will continue to ruin the well being of those who experience the effects of trauma and put strain on familial relationships. 

A younger woman shows an older woman something on her phone.
Trauma can cause strain on familial relationships where there would otherwise be unconditional love.  

Signs to Watch Out For

  • Avoidance of certain situations without legitimate reasoning
  • Denial over events that have occurred in the past
  • Have problems with alcohol or drug abuse
  • Unexplained anxiety and hypervigilance 
  • Tend to mistrust other people

Generational Trauma in Communities

Trauma is a common occurrence in communities who have endured collective struggles in the past. Though individuals can experience trauma and spread the effects of their trauma to members of their families, trauma can also be experienced on a much larger scale by many different people. 

The unifying factor in communities who have intergenerational trauma is the specific identity or culture that they share. This can refer to their ethnicity, nationality, or religious affiliation. Shared complex trauma can be very difficult to work through and can challenge the way members of the community feel towards each other, making certain behaviors acceptable when they wouldn’t be elsewhere.    

Communities experiencing division make for unhealthy environments for new generations to grow up in. A number of problems can occur to the families who are affected by trauma or the consequences caused by it.

Trauma can lead to increased rates of poverty, homelessness, and addiction within communities who experience its effects. Events of mass suffering, such as the Holocaust in Europe or the institutionalization of slavery in North America, have prolonged effects on the survivors that do not disappear after death. Instead, the damage lingers and causes even more problems for future generations. 

Confronting trauma that originates from a single person is a challenge and it doesn’t get any easier when it comes to an entire community. Many difficulties that may not be present in individualized trauma can come up within communities that make it hard to sufficiently manage damaging effects, which can be demoralizing for some. It is important to look towards the future for hope and make an effort to sustain the culture of the community for your children.   

A woman lifts her baby into the air.
Acknowledging generational trauma is vital in cultivating a healthy family environment where the relationship between parent and child is not filled with tension. 

Healing Generational Trauma

To begin the healing process, it is important that you address the trauma that negatively impacts your life. How you approach generational trauma depends on whether the trauma is an individualized or collective experience shared by a greater community. 

Those who experience the effects of trauma should be provided with appropriate resources to help them manage it, but for larger communities as a whole, the prevention of trauma can only be accomplished through mitigating harmful institutions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come easily. 

Racism, slavery, genocide, and sexual violence are all common examples of trauma that can be inherited by multiple generations and have adverse effects on self worth. If you belong to a community who has endured struggles in the past, be aware of the present situation and any lingering effects brought on by a traumatic event.    

Healing Strategies

  • Identify the trauma and how it has affected your life and family
  • Be empathetic towards others and their behaviors by acknowledging the influence that past events have had on your family
  • Have compassion with yourself and others and recognize that everyone has their own flaws
  • Contact a provider who understands trauma and can help you make the most out of therapy

Despite how scary and ingrained generational trauma is within your family or community, always remember that the path to healing is attainable. Open and honest communication with your loved ones is the best course of action you can take to begin healing both yourself and those you hold close to your heart.

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