Generational Trauma: What is it? Why is it Important?

Some families pass on heirlooms from one generation to the next. Sometimes those heirlooms are valuable pieces of jewelry or furniture. Sometimes it is a box of letters our great-grandfather sent home to our great-grandmother during the First World War. For others, rather than a valuable or sentimental item, the history of generational dysfunction or trauma is passed from one generation to the next.

About six years ago, my then three-year-old daughter called out my bullying parenting tactics and demanded I do better. I was shocked. Who did she think she was? I was, the parent, after all. But rather than shut her down and rush her out the door, as my mother would have done to me, I sat with her and listened to her. She told me how I hurt her feelings when I yelled at her.

In that moment, I vowed to do and be better, and I embarked on a journey of self-discovery and healing. Along that journey, I recognized my parenting techniques. Generation after generation used the same methods I used the first few years of my daughter’s life. I began to connect the dots between each generation and why they parented the way that they did. In my research, I learned that this idea is called generational trauma.

What is Generational Trauma?

First coined by Canadian psychiatrists after observing children of Holocaust survivors exhibiting signs of psychological distress. Generational trauma is the passing of psychological effects of trauma from one generation to the next. While the research around the biological passing of trauma and its effect on DNA is still new, there is widespread agreement among researchers, psychologists, and therapists, that the coping mechanisms of the trauma are passed from generation to generation. Plainly said: you act a certain way because of the way your parents acted, and they acted the way they did because of their parents.

We’ve all likely heard the saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Essentially, unless a parent stopped to consider why they were parenting the way they were or questioned whether their behaviors allowed them to show up as the parent they wanted to be, each generation mindlessly passed on what they gleaned from their own parents.

But I didn’t experience trauma

Perhaps you are thinking,No one in my family has experienced trauma.”

I like to refer to generational trauma as generational dysfunction. The reason for this is because when we say “trauma” people immediately think of overtly traumatic events: living through war, some sort of abuse, or the death of a parent. Often, however, the dysfunction that is passed down is not Capital ‘T’ Trauma, but instead, lowercase ‘t’ trauma: divorce, financial difficulties, emotional neglect.

Capital ‘T’ Trauma will certainly have an impact and is often something that haunts us into adulthood. Lowercase ‘t’ trauma, however, often flies under the radar. When we look back on our childhood, we are hard-pressed to find a time when we experienced trauma.

Psychology Today defines lowercase-t trauma to be “events that exceed our capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning.” The dysfunction surrounding these events, are often passed down from generation to generation.

Not having a safe space to process heavy emotions, the daily stress of financial difficulties, the absence of a caregiver – these all have profound impacts on how we process and connect with our environments, and thus impact how we show up as adults and as parents.

Identifying Generational Trauma

In many situations, there are multiple lowercase ‘t’ traumas occurring simultaneously. I was a child of divorce and was raised in a home where we didn’t discuss emotions (childhood emotional neglect). We lacked financial security and moved multiple times in a short period of time. And in many of the homes, I had to share a room with my brothers or my mom.

This all had a tremendous impact on my mental well-being and how I approached the world and sought out relationships. These events wrote my childhood messaging.

As I learned about my family history, I saw patterns emerge. Generation after generation, there was a story of loss, financial strain, and a lack of safe adults with whom to process challenging emotions.

These messages laid the groundwork for negative mindsets to be passed from generation to generation: I am not enough. I am not good enough, worthy enough, deserving enough. These messages infiltrated our parenting, continuing the cycle of inadequacy.

As you dive into your own healing journey, you’ll discover that to change the trajectory of childhood messaging, you must heal your own trauma. You must reparent your inner child with a message of acceptance. In order to break the cycle of generational dysfunction and trauma, you need to heal.

Three generations of women


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