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Let’s Talk About Generational Trauma (and How to End the Cycle)

Generational trauma is a huge issue that is not talked about enough, in my opinion. So many people have personality traits that are similar to people who have experienced immense emotional trauma, and they may not even know why. Trauma, even if you are unaware you are experiencing it, can have a multitude of negative effects. Ending generational trauma is crucial to promoting intrafamilial and societal healing.

Definition: Generational trauma is a type of trauma that exists within families and/or communities. It gets passed down by negative behaviors that create negative feelings and traits in the people that experience it.

Your family can traumatize you.

We give you food in your mouth, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head, how could you be traumatized?” These are actual words that way too many people relate to hearing.

I’ve talked to other people about this and I have found that a lot of people who experience this have similar things to say about how their family reacts to the word “trauma.” Some families might have a deep self-reflection and think about ways to fix this. However, families that are stuck in generational trauma cycles will do things like ridicule, taunt, and even laugh at such a word. Many families “don’t believe in mental health.” By this I mean that they do not take it seriously. Depression and anxiety, the most common mental illnesses, simply do not exist to some people. If it isn’t obvious enough, this is harmful!

The dismissal of mental health topics fuels the constant cycle of people not going to therapy because they don’t know they are unwell. In these families, only physical (visible) illnesses exist, and any other illness is a complete joke. From talking with others, I’ve noticed that this aspect is more common in POC families (but not ONLY POC families).

Recently, while talking to a friend, I was told that she had negative experiences with her family constantly talking about her looks. Her family would often call her fat, using it as an insult (though it is not). She explained that hearing these things as a kid is the reason she suffers from body insecurity today. She also said that her grandmother did the same thing to her mother, and that she plans to never belittle her children’s appearance. Why do people accept trauma as a part of the norms?

How does Generational Trauma Affect People?

The most important thing to remember about generational trauma is that it is not only individual, but generational; it affects entire families and even can affect entire demographics of people. For example, speaking as a Black woman, it is very common to hit/spank/whip children as a form of discipline. Since Black people used to receive this form of discipline during slavery, it is not a reach to say that this stems from ancestral trauma. Other PTSD-based generational trauma can come from things like natural disasters, genocides, etc.

Just because this behavior can be explained, does not mean it is justified. While I am not a parent, constantly using physical force as a means of teaching right from wrong just seems wrong in itself. Why put the same trauma onto your children that your parents did to you?

Within families, generational trauma behaviors lead to lots of resentment and unhealthy communication. Children in these types of families are told not to “talk back,” when talking back really just means explaining or sticking up for yourself. In the long run, people who grew up with this thinking have problems expressing themselves in adulthood and often are walked over and/or have unhealthy ways of expressing their emotions. Effects of this even have psychological trauma that gets passed down through genetics! You can literally INHERIT trauma!

In my own personal experience, there are things that I realized was not okay within my family, that I didn't know was probably generational trauma. One of the biggest things is that my family (and many others) think that physical punishment is the only form of discipline. Even if someone made a simple mistake, the adults' first reaction is always to react physically. This is not always a good form of discipline, and can make children scared to do anything due to fear. I can argue that this leads to people-pleasing tendencies and reluctancy to voice opinions as an adult.

How to Spot Generational Trauma

Generational trauma can look like:

  1. Dismissing someone’s feelings and explanations

  2. Avoiding responsibility, and blaming others when called out

  3. Putting large stressors on vulnerable family members

  4. Lack of boundaries, and reacting defensively when boundary-setting is mentioned

  5. Avoidant personality

  6. Family members overestimating bad situations, leading to overprotectiveness

* These tendencies occur within a family or demographic.

Ways to Avoid Perpetuating The Cycle

Generational trauma isn't something we should ignore. The cycle needs to end. With therapy and productive conversations, the cycle can end.

1. I cannot stress enough how important it is to heal yourself! This type of trauma is cyclical, and it can only stop when someone acknowledges it, and works to break the cycle.

2. For those who do not yet have children, work on creating a positive environment within yourself and your family before having children. Raising a child in a family who cannot rid the negative behaviors will only continue the cycle.

3. Call out your family members. Tell them when they are doing something that makes you feel dismissed or upset. Don’t allow them to talk over you. It also is a good idea to listen to what their parents did that caused their own trauma. (Doing this can be terrifying, here’s how to effectively call out your family members)

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