Generational Trauma and Breaking the Cycle

The environment where your child grows up is as important as genetics for determining their future health and level of success in life. What people experience actually changes the structures of their brains. Since the brains of young children exhibit especially high plasticity, what they experience can impact them for the rest of their lives. Negative experiences as a child can even become generational trauma when that child grows up and raises their own family. Here’s some more information about generational trauma, its potential effects, and how to prevent it.

What Is Generational Trauma?

Generational trauma starts with an adverse childhood experience (ACE). Then, the person’s experiences as a child impact their decisions as an adult. For example, people whose parents regularly used corporal punishment are more likely to grow up and start a relationship with an abusive spouse. For them, being hit by loved ones is normal. When they have a child, he or she could be traumatized by observing spousal abuse and enduring abuse themselves.

Some events can impact entire societies instead of just one family. For example, many people who lived through the Great Depression in the United States taught their children to stockpile food and other resources, recycle, and prepare for crises. Even the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who fought in wars may not trust individuals from the country on the other side of the conflict. People sometimes call this intergenerational trauma rather than generational trauma.

The Effects of Generational Trauma

generational trauma

Image via Flickr by IsaacMao

The emerging field of epigenetics studies how peoples’ experiences change the way they express their genes. While trauma can’t change genetics, it alters how your cells follow those instructions. Children born to parents who experienced trauma could have higher risks of chronic disease and behavioral disorders, even if they didn’t experience negative events themselves. The stress from ACEs can change your attention span, decision-making abilities, learning, ability to form healthy relationships, and response to stress. Then, these changes impact the brains of their children, as well.

Children who have ACEs often have PTSD. They live much of their lives in fight, flight, or freeze/fright mode. They perceive the world as dangerous, and they don’t trust teachers or their peers. They eventually cope with their negative feelings by participating in risky behaviors like drug use and overeating. According to Indiana University, children who had ACEs are more likely to suffer from obesity, suicide, depression, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and drug or alcohol abuse.

They’re also likely to have parents who also suffered from ACEs when they were younger. Kids with more than three ACEs are three times more likely to fail classes and six times more likely to have behavioral problems. Attendance problems are also five times more likely. People with ACEs also have lower earnings and education levels as adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that preventing ACEs could reduce heart disease cases by 1.9 million, instances of obesity by 2.5 million, and cases of depression by 21 million. Generational trauma from ACEs cost people in the United States hundreds of billions of dollars per year in lost income, increased medical expenses, and higher needs for social services.

Trauma Awareness for Parents

To prevent generational trauma, people who suffer from ACEs should seek counseling for trauma and abuse. About 61% of adults suffered at least one ACE as children, so it’s likely that you experienced a traumatic event that could impact the way you raise your children. Common ACEs include poverty, emotional abuse, and even having parents who divorced during childhood. Getting professional help for yourself and your children is important to break the cycle and keep trauma from becoming a generational problem.

You should also be aware of common behaviors after trauma so that you can avoid them. Many people reenact their past trauma unconsciously because it’s familiar. That’s why people with abusive parents often end up with abusive spouses. They often imitate the behavior of their parents when they have children as well.

Your children can also remind you of trauma that you experienced when you were a similar age, acting as a psychological “trigger”, in which people often react by becoming angry or extremely irritated. For example, a parent who experienced sexual abuse could overreact to the sight of their spouse tickling their child. If this behavior recurs often, it could create an ACE for the child.

People who were abused often end up with low self-esteem because they internalize the negative messages from their abusers. One of the most important steps for keeping your trauma from harming your child is believing that you can provide a better childhood and future for your offspring than you experienced. However, people sometimes make too many changes. Parents who were neglected may supervise their kids too much to try to keep them safe, depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to live independently.

Breaking the Cycle for Children

Of course, parents who had wonderful childhoods could have children who experience ACEs. A kid could suffer from bullying, or they could witness a violent event like a shooting. If your child suddenly gains or loses weight, seems depressed, has trouble sleeping, or has trouble with schoolwork, they may have experienced an ACE. Counseling can help them overcome the trauma and prevent many future problems for them and their children.

Teaching children how to resolve conflicts, resist peer pressure, and participate in healthy relationships is important as well. A good after-school program or taking part in an extracurricular activity can help kids learn how to interact with others in a healthy way. Showing a good example by making healthy decisions yourself will also increase your child’s chances of success.

Even if you think your childhood was relatively normal, you could have experienced traumatic ACEs. You should be aware of your emotions and your children’s feelings. If you think that generational trauma could be impacting how you interact with your kid or that your child may have experienced trauma themselves, contact us at NeuroHealth to help all of your family members heal.