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7 Tips to Breaking The Generational Trauma Cycle

What is generational trauma?

Generational trauma is the transmission of the negative effects of trauma from generation to generation within families. This form of trauma is also known as intergenerational, transgenerational, or secondary trauma.​​1​ As a result, trauma experienced in one generation can affect the health and well-being of subsequent generations.

The concept of generational trauma was first identified through studies on children of Holocaust survivors.

Researchers found that descendants of these survivors, despite not having directly experienced the historical trauma, exhibited symptoms typically associated with direct exposure.​2​ Children of survivors who suffered from other types of trauma, such as refugees,​3​ child abuse, and domestic violence,​4​ also show a similar pattern.

family blows bubbles together

What causes generational trauma?

The generational trauma cycle is created and symptoms are passed down by the following 4 mechanisms.​5,6​

Parenting styles

Intergenerational trauma transmission is often not conscious. Instead, it happens subtly and subconsciously through parenting styles.

Children subconsciously absorb their parents’ unresolved and repressed traumatic experiences, which can unknowingly shape their emotional and psychological state.​7​

For instance, victims of childhood maltreatment are more likely to be aggressive with their own children, causing traumatic reactions in them.​8​

Parents with childhood trauma tend to provide similar traumatic experiences for their children because that’s the only way they know how.

Childhood maltreatment causes a rupture in the attachment between parent and child, leading to attachment trauma.

Sociocultural model

Trauma can be passed down through social learning.

Children learn by observing their parents’ behaviors, reactions, and coping mechanisms.

They imitate these behaviors internalizing and carrying forward the trauma of the earlier generations.

Family systems

Transmission of trauma can occur through family enmeshment.

Family enmeshment refers to a pattern where family members are overly involved in each other’s lives to the point where family unit boundaries become blurred.

Enmeshment can lead to vicarious experiences where children deeply internalize the experiences of their parents’ original trauma.

They may struggle to establish their identities or emotional boundaries or separate from the trauma and the family’s collective response.

As a result, children grow up carrying these unresolved issues with them.

Epigenetic changes

When a person experiences trauma, it can change their brain structure and functions resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

These changes can be passed on to future generations through epigenetic mechanisms.

Essentially, the trauma experienced by previous generations can alter the genetic ‘blueprint’ in a way that influences the brain development and stress responses in the younger generations.

An uninterested mother sitting next to her children playing on cell phones.

How does generational trauma start?

Generational trauma starts when traumatized children grow up with unresolved trauma and become parents themselves. Parenting is hard as is. When parents also bear the weight of emotional struggles, it becomes even more challenging for them to create and maintain a supportive and nurturing environment for their family.​9​

How do you break a generational trauma?

To break the generational trauma, parents can follow these 7 steps.

1. The first step

YOU are the key step in this healing journey.

The inter-generational trauma cycle can be broken starting with you. 

You have the power to end this.

But for it to work, you must commit to doing so.

Ending the cycle of childhood trauma is not easy, as it is often deeply ingrained in the body, unhealthy family patterns, and cultural norms. 

So, it cannot be done without your commitment.

Even though it is hard, you can achieve it if you are determined.

2. Acknowledge trauma in your family history

Individuals who can acknowledge and process their own experiences of parental abuse are more likely to break the cycle and avoid abusing their children. 

They tend to have specific and clear memories of their childhood experiences and openly express their angry reactions.

However, parents who deny or try to ignore the abuse they inflict on their children, or have an idealized image of their abusive parents, are less successful in breaking the abusive pattern​10​.

3. Set Your Goal

Those who succeed in breaking cycles of family trauma often want their children to live better lives than they did. 

Their goals and motivation center on giving their children a safer, happier, and more successful life than their own​11​.

A clear goal like this can help you stay motivated when facing challenges.

4. Parent Differently

Parenting is hard and stressful.

In addition, if you’ve never experienced a healthy parent-child relationship, you may not know what it looks like or how to build it with your child.

When stressed, we tend to parent how we were raised.

So, to break the trauma cycle, we must parent differently.

Check out How To Not Be Like Your Parents

5. Resolve Childhood Trauma

Resolving your adverse childhood trauma is the surest way to stop the trauma cycle.

It entails recognizing the impact of your adverse childhood experiences, understanding how they have shaped your beliefs, behaviors, and relationships, and accepting that the trauma you endured is real and significant.

During this process, you will discover what caused your unresolved trauma, how it has influenced your life, and what to avoid doing to your children.

6. Seek professional help

Attachment trauma often creates deep-seated wounds and distrust in others, making it hard for you to want to seek help.

But addressing your unresolved trauma with the help of mental health professionals is the safest and most effective way to do so.

Childhood trauma can cause severe conditions and mental health disorders that may not be possible to self-treat.

Childhood trauma in adults that require mental health treatment include drug abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety disorder, and dissociative disorder.

Simply reading a blog will unlikely help you treat these mental disorders.

7. Be patient

Be patient. Your journey to this point took decades, so expecting to undo everything and see changes overnight is unrealistic.

It can take years and a lot of hard work for some wounds to heal.

But with determination and persistence, the cycle of family trauma will end with you.

A support group and therapist holding hands with each other.

How to heal from generational trauma?

Besides seeking the help of a therapist, there are 5 ways to help yourself overcome childhood trauma.

Carefully build a network of support

Most child traumas have an interpersonal component, meaning that they stem from the actions or inactions of others and, as a result, cause invisible wounds.

Positive relationships are best able to heal relational wounds​12​.

Having a strong emotional support network you can rely on is crucial​13​.

However, be careful when you reach out to others.

Despite their best intentions, not every friend or family can provide you with the emotional support you need to heal. 

Dealing with childhood trauma can be an isolating and lonely experience.

When others cannot relate to what you’re going through, they may say things that hurt you rather than help.

You will receive better support from those who are empathic and good listeners.

It doesn’t mean you should cut ties with friends who cannot support you in this specific area.

You can still connect and have relationships with them, sharing other life experiences.

Reflect on your behavior patterns

Be mindful of who you are connecting with or seeking support.

Research shows that, unfortunately, people who have experienced past trauma tend to gravitate toward unhealthy or harmful relationships​14​.

It’s crucial to connect with people who are healthy, positive, and supportive.

While feeling understood and validated is reassuring, be aware of the potential for the cycle of violence to repeat itself. 

Have a network of people you can trust and turn to, not exclusively rely on one person for emotional needs.

If you’re currently in an abusive relationship, seek help immediately.

You don’t have to go through this alone; help is available.

Start the healing process by contacting your healthcare providers.

You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline and speak with someone today.
Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
Text “START” to 88788
Live chat at https://www.thehotline.org/

Read About Complex Trauma

Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman

There are many different types of trauma.

Chronic stress, also known as toxic stress, during the early years, can lead to complex trauma resulting in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

CPTSD is different from PTSD, which tends to be caused by single traumatic events like car accidents or natural disasters.

For those who have experienced complex childhood trauma, the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman can be extremely helpful.

It provides a comprehensive overview of complex trauma’s traumatic impacts and describes the long-term effects on an individual’s development and well-being.

Judith Herman is an American psychiatrist and trauma specialist who pioneered the research and treatment of complex trauma.

In the book, she provided a framework to understand and recognize trauma symptoms and signs of C-PTSD​15​.

Most importantly, Herman offered hope for survivors of complex trauma.

Deal with life issues

It is crucial to get help for life issues such as alcohol or drug addiction if you are struggling with them. 

For parents, such struggles can compound parenting challenges and perpetuate the transgenerational trauma cycle​16​.

Seek resources

Here are some resources to help you combat these problems.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

SAMHSA’s National Helpline
Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Alcoholics Anonymous
https://www.aa.org/

The Twelve Steps Program at Alcoholics Anonymous
https://www.aa.org/the-twelve-steps

If you are dealing with your parents’ addiction as an adult, you can find a local meeting or support group here:

Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families World Service Organization
https://adultchildren.org/meeting-search/

A woman comforting a troubled man.

References

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    Doucet M, Rovers M. Generational Trauma, Attachment, and Spiritual/Religious Interventions. Journal of Loss and Trauma. Published online February 26, 2010:93-105. doi:10.1080/15325020903373078
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    Bowers ME, Yehuda R. Intergenerational Transmission of Stress in Humans. Neuropsychopharmacol. Published online August 17, 2015:232-244. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.247
  3. 3.
    Sangalang CC, Vang C. Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Families: A Systematic Review. J Immigrant Minority Health. Published online September 22, 2016:745-754. doi:10.1007/s10903-016-0499-7
  4. 4.
    Catani C. Krieg im Zuhause – ein Überblick zum Zusammenhang zwischen Kriegstraumatisierung und familiärer Gewalt. Verhaltenstherapie. Published online January 26, 2009:19-27. doi:10.1159/000261994
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    Menzies P. Developing an Aboriginal Healing Model for Intergenerational Trauma. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education. Published online January 2008:41-48. doi:10.1080/14635240.2008.10708128
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    Dozio E, Feldman M, Bizouerne C, et al. The Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma: The Effects of Maternal PTSD in Mother-Infant Interactions. Front Psychiatry. Published online November 30, 2020. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.480690
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    Isobel S, Goodyear M, Furness T, Foster K. Preventing intergenerational trauma transmission: A critical interpretive synthesis. J Clin Nurs. Published online December 16, 2018. doi:10.1111/jocn.14735
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    Saile R, Ertl V, Neuner F, Catani C. Does war contribute to family violence against children? Findings from a two-generational multi-informant study in Northern Uganda. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online January 2014:135-146. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2013.10.007
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    Bridgett DJ, Burt NM, Edwards ES, Deater-Deckard K. Intergenerational transmission of self-regulation: A multidisciplinary review and integrative conceptual framework. Psychological Bulletin. Published online May 2015:602-654. doi:10.1037/a0038662
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    Langeland W, Dijkstra S. Breaking the intergenerational transmission of child abuse: Beyond the mother-child relationship. Child Abuse Rev. Published online March 1995:4-13. doi:10.1002/car.2380040104
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    Woods-Jaeger BA, Cho B, Sexton CC, Slagel L, Goggin K. Promoting Resilience: Breaking the Intergenerational Cycle of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Health Educ Behav. Published online February 12, 2018:772-780. doi:10.1177/1090198117752785
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    Banks A. Relational Therapy for Trauma. Journal of Trauma Practice. Published online October 11, 2006:25-47. doi:10.1300/j189v05n01_03
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    Dixon L, Browne K, Hamilton-Giachritsis C. Patterns of Risk and Protective Factors in the Intergenerational Cycle of Maltreatment. J Fam Viol. Published online November 24, 2008:111-122. doi:10.1007/s10896-008-9215-2
  14. 14.
    Trippany RL, Helm HM, Simpson L. Trauma Reenactment: Rethinking Borderline Personality Disorder When Diagnosing Sexual Abuse Survivors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. Published online March 30, 2006:95-110. doi:10.17744/mehc.28.2.ef384lm8ykfujum5
  15. 15.
    Susan Rubin Suleiman. Judith Herman and Contemporary Trauma Theory. WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly. Published online 2008:276-281. doi:10.1353/wsq.0.0016
  16. 16.
    Neger EN, Prinz RJ. Interventions to address parenting and parental substance abuse: Conceptual and methodological considerations. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online July 2015:71-82. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2015.04.004

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