We pass down all kinds of things to our children. We pass down genes, traits, personality types, culture, and behaviors. It is true that children are like sponges and they continually seek outside of themselves to develop their “normal”. Children are constantly learning and observing, they recreate what they see and brain patterns are formed. Children start to build who they are based on the environment they are recreating around them.
As I begin to write about generational trauma I want my firm belief to be known that “everyone is doing the best they can with what they have.” I do not believe that people purposefully try to harm or make other’s lives less than what they are supposed to be. They are typically repeating what they know and based on how they were taught to do it.
What is Generational Trauma?
The definition I will use to define generational trauma is: maladaptive behaviors and patterns that are passed down from parents to children then passed to the children’s children. Many people will have heard the phrase “when the abused becomes the abuser”, as this is not always the case in every situation, there is truth to the phrase. This is an example of generational trauma. This also related to the idea of attachment, beliefs, behaviors, and relationships.
What Happens in Generational Trauma?
Generational trauma is a accumulation of neural network in the brain that are established by patterns in behavior and hormones. Trauma can be a very difficult thing to heal. The more engrained it becomes in family systems, the harder the chains are to break. When we look at behaviors, beliefs, and patterns we often can begin to see a recurrence in the previous generation. These behaviors become a repetitive part of the system that children learn from and then develop the same neural networks in the brain as the parents.
Within the same neural networks come the same hormones. If a child grows up in a family where domestic violence is prevalent they are constantly learning from the behaviors as well as having stress hormones that are triggered in the body as a protective agent. Elevated levels of stress hormones in children can cause the brain to register that those hormones need to remain elevated for safety. Elevated levels of stress hormones can health effects later on down the road, and they can present current symptoms that can be seen as anxiety, attention deficit hyper activity, oppositional defiance, and depression.
Mirror neurons in the brain are exactly as they sound, when we see something we often do it back. If we see someone smile we often smile back. If we see someone crying, we often feel sad. The same is true for anxiety and anger. If we see someone highly anxious our body tends to increase in anxiety. If children are in a household of high anxiety, they often learn to be anxious. Therefore, anxiety can be generational.
How Can You Heal Generational Trauma?
Many people don’t recognize their behaviors as maladaptive because they simply are taking what they learned and applying it in the best way that they know how. Awareness is the key to change. Without recognizing that there is something happening in your family system there cannot be change.
- First step is seeing the patterns. Some are more obvious than others: domestic violence, abuse, anxiety, gender roles, among others.
- Second step is building the awareness around what triggers you to step into these established patterns. Is it yelling, disrespect, feeling devalued, physical aggression, watching people bully others? The list could be endless.
- Once you are aware of triggers, the fourth step is becoming aware of how you react to the triggers. Do you shut down, become angry, become violent, yell?
- Fourth step is learning to put road blocks in those patterns. Setting up a trigger word or phrase that helps you recognize when you are going down a pattern. Setting up a support network to be held accountable.
- Fifth step is give yourself grace. These are patterns that have been engrained for a long period of time. Generational trauma does not heal overnight or over a week. It takes time.
Asking for help from a professional is a great option to supplement these steps. Sometimes the trauma you encountered and be so engrained for protection that extra help may be required. Trauma is stored in the body and stored in the brain.