Healing Family (and Generational) Trauma

Updated on February 20, 2020
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Laura writes from the Pacific Northwest. She explores topics on relationships, health and wellness, social issues, and lifestyle.

The process of healing is hard but what comes after is freedom and relief.
The process of healing is hard but what comes after is freedom and relief.

The Trauma Journey

“Dad, can you tell the nurse what you want for dinner?” I asked my dad. He was in the hospital room, slumped over in a chair, utterly defeated by a simple question.

“I don’t know. I can’t decide,” he replied. "Probably because I’m insane.”

“You’re not insane. Who told you that?” I asked.

“My dad.”

“I’m so sorry about that. He was mean to you.” I tried to comfort my dad, but the damage had been done decades (likely generations) before I was born.

My dad has a lot of hate for his father, but the sad thing is he became just like his dad and this led to a rocky, often non-existent relationship between us.

He passed over the weekend and suddenly it dawned on me that my trauma is my journey. My dad, and even other family members, were not eager to share my journey, or reconcile how I experienced my family life, or whether or not I healed. That was on me! And now with my dad gone, I would see no remorse or apologies from him.

In a way, we must grieve what happened (the trauma) and grieve what we wish had happened instead (our expectations).

Trauma is an inside job. We can't wait for others to make it right. We can't wait for the apology to never come or things to be wrapped up in a neat little package.

Grieve whatever was lost; acknowledge whatever was gained.

Flip the Script

It's quite natural for us to focus on the negative whether that's a million negative thoughts that automatically pop in your brain each day without your permission or judging other people with a negative bias (we all do it).

And the reality is you will have a lot of mixed emotions about your trauma and even about the person that inflicted it. We may naturally focus on the bad/the trauma, but there's more to it than that. There are layers, right?!

  • You may love the person or have loved them at one time.
  • You may be a stronger person for what you've overcome.
  • You may have sympathy for a perpetrator.

All of these are contradictory to our sometimes one-sided view of trauma.

After my dad passed, the mixed emotions flooded me. On the one hand, I was sad that he never healed his own trauma or our relationship. Sadness flitted with anger over his stubbornness and the "system" for failing to properly treat his mental illnesses.

Besides the negative emotions, I couldn't help but witness an appreciation and gratitude within me for the things that family trauma and my dad had taught me. Lessons that made me who I am, even if it was a role model of how not to be.

Since our tendency is towards the negative, can you think of how your trauma benefitted you? What lessons did you learn? Are you proud of what you've overcome? Have you helped others who went through something similar?

Now you're ready to tackle the trauma with an open mind.

Have you experienced trauma within your family?

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What Is Family Trauma?

Trauma can occur within a family when something is done or said that threatens one's sense of safety or security. It can be a one-time event or an ongoing occurrence. It's usually something that is beyond our level of coping skills, understanding and, ability to defend against at the time.

It's important to remember the unique thing about trauma is that it's experienced differently by different people. It's hard to compare one person's trauma to another's even if they were in the same family unit.

Strong emotional or physical reactions typically follow a distressing event that causes trauma.

Trauma then becomes stored in one's memory and subconscious, later to be reactivated throughout life when another event or even certain words and feelings trigger the trauma in the psyche. Essentially, someone could experience and re-experience their trauma in their day-to-day lives.

What we don't heal resurfaces.

Emerging science also includes generational trauma such as those in younger generations affected by trauma of an elder member in the family, a great-grandparent who survived the holocaust or a great aunt who lost a child. Families have a story and stories are powerful. You can see why healing trauma now can help future generations in your family.

When people experience trauma, the pain associated with it may be too great to handle so they tend to avoid it, but this is the opposite direction of healing.

Suffering from family trauma can result in:

  • fear, phobias, anxiety, PTSD, obsessive thoughts, or depression.
  • poor relationships...you may be unable to form close, satisfying relationships. It may be difficult for you to trust others, which is a crucial aspect of intimacy in close relationships.
  • terrifying memories, nightmares, persistent negative thoughts or flashbacks.
  • accepting abuse from others.
  • damaged self-esteem.
  • increased risk of physical illness.
  • substance abuse.
  • repeating or fear of repeating abuse with your children.

There are ways we act out our trauma as well, such as being a people pleaser, codependent, conflict-driven, or being aloof and isolating yourself.

If any of these reflect you, it's time to dig deeper and take note of all the ways in which you are affected by your trauma.

Can we inherit family trauma?

Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as a part of the whole picture.

Conventional wisdom says that if something bothers us or causes us anxiety, then just don't look at it, avoid it. Don't go there. So we run from past traumas or from discomfort. Hiding it or running from it becomes your prison. Suffering is universal, but victimhood is optional.

— Edith Eva Eger

Secrets: The Other Trauma

Show me a family without its secrets and I'll show you a flying pig. When trauma occurs within the family unit, people work very hard to hide it. Not facing it though, doesn't make it go away. Stuffing it down can further traumatize you.

In generational trauma, a granddaughter can unknowingly experience some of the same emotions of her grandmother's trauma. It's important to be open and honest on your terms so that others may learn from our suffering or understand their own suffering better.

Distancing yourself from certain family members is not a guarantee for automatic healing and relief from trauma either. You might feel less, but don't mistake that for being healed.

Avoidance is a powerful but deceptive defense mechanism. Distance can give you time to sort things out for yourself so take it if you need it, but ultimately healing is an inside job that involves you, not others.

In order to heal, you face it, you accept what happened. This has nothing to do with the other person.


Stop Trauma This Generation!

Nobody decides to suffer, but if you've experienced trauma, it becomes an automatic response through behavior and thoughts.

However, you can decide to end the way trauma affects your life now. You can decide to be a victim or survivor and thriver! This is a conscious decision. There are steps to take that are backed by some of the best science in cognitive behavioral therapy as well as epigenetics.

The brain is malleable once you make up your mind ;-)

Trying a new way of relating to your thoughts, experiences, and the world isn't easy.I know firsthand.

My determination not to let go of trauma was linked to how adversity had been my ongoing cheerleader. I grew and improved with everything I overcame.

No longer worshipping the struggle had me scared of 'what now'? Struggle was part of my identity; part of my triumphs. No matter how it looked on the outside though, if I was honest, I was still suffering on the inside.

In this way, we have to make up our minds and choose to release, not just overcome, our trauma. We have to understand that we can stand on our own without that trauma defining us any longer. Who are you without your trauma? Who would you like to be?

Three Ways to Heal Trauma—Psychologically and Emotionally

1. Take out the trash: Start with an assessment of how your trauma affects your life now.

The first thing to do is to stop the past! Stop continuing to enact the trauma. Sounds obvious, but how?

One reason it's difficult for us to forgive and let go of the way we identify with our trauma is when we keep the trauma going. We do this by still playing the role of the victim or taking on the role of the perpetrator. We also do this by still believing we are the same person who went through the trauma.

The trauma can follow you through your behaviors, habits, or maybe allowing others to hurt you in a way that's familiar.

If it's still in our lives, it's like stocking a cupboard full of alcohol in a recovering alcoholic's house.

And as mentioned above, after experiencing trauma, we sometimes take on the role of victim or perpetrator.

We may use tactics of our narcissistic parent or abuse in a different way. We can also become alcoholics like our alcoholic parent(s). In this case, we are still living with our trauma presently.

Identify whether the trauma is still manifesting itself in your life.

For instance, I was the product of two parents with mental illness (Delusional Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, PTSD, and Histrionic Disorder, combined). If I didn't play by their "rules" of delusion, my world was not safe. So I played. I became codependent.

Once I identified how my trauma was showing up in my current life, I got help. I took a codependency course and program. I was much better equipped to heal everything else once I took out the trash tying me to the trauma.

Start with an assessment of your trash. How does your trauma show up?

2. Put your mind at ease: Discover and use new thoughts and images to change your brain.

While you're taking out the trash, you need to learn a new way of relating to the world going forward.

There's some amazing research showing people who overcome panic and anxiety by this method:

Imagine someone who represents a safe place for you. We all have someone who has been gentle or kind to us, someone who helped us. Picture them, hear their voice. By doing this you release oxytocin, the love hormone.

In studies, it's been shown that women who merely imagined breastfeeding their babies had lowered their stress levels because breastfeeding causes a release of oxytocin. Now we know a "safe person" does this as well.

Better yet, if you can note the things that trigger your trauma in your everyday life, then mentally attach them (think of the trigger then immediately imagine and hear the person who is safe to you), you can lower the stress and anxiety associated with your trauma.

3. Emotions vs. facts: Identify "facts" so you can slowly detach from the painful emotions of the past.

Sometimes if you've survived trauma, you lose your trust in yourself or the world and other people. This is because part of you can't be sure it won't happen again even as irrational as this may seem, but like above I mentioned how we reenact our trauma.

Try this exercise below.

  1. Think of the source of your trauma- the person or the event or something that invokes the most emotions.
  2. Remember how it made you feel. Dive into emotions and how it made you feel when the trauma, abuse, or betrayal occurred. How does it make you feel now? How do you feel about that person?
  3. Fold or draw a line, dividing a piece of paper into two parts. On one side, label it "Emotions" and write down all the emotions that came up in the last step.
  4. On the other half of the paper, label it "facts" and write down how this person hurt you. What tactics did they use? What words did they use? Write down any methods you recall, words or phrases, boundaries they consistently overstepped, traits and behaviors reflective of them. Describe the situation and how it occurred as if you're writing a police report. Write this part as factual as you can.
  5. You can now see before you the difference between emotions and "facts". Facts arm you with wisdom, ways to protect yourself, and learning opportunities. You now have a cheat sheet (a guide) of signs that someone may potentially hurt you. Your emotions do not have to be your record-keeper anymore.

It's our irrational emotional record-keeping that keeps us viewing the world from the perspective of our trauma and not trusting ourselves or the world.

Bad people exist. Bad situations exist, but if you focus on "facts" over emotions (with the help of this exercise), you can learn to trust yourself and your inner guidance to steer you away from people and situations that may potentially harm you. You learn to regulate strong emotions and rebuild your ability to trust others.

Realize that trauma doesn't disappear through healing; you simply learn to relate to it differently. You're not stuffing it down or "forgetting" it. You're not allowing it to be the lens through which you view everything and everybody else.

It's just another part of you. Your trauma doesn't define you any more than what you ate for breakfast yesterday.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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    • Carolyn M Fields profile image

      Carolyn Fields 

      8 months ago from South Dakota, USA

      An excellent article, thank you.

      My family of origin had secrets, but very little trauma that I can think of. My late husband was another story. He suffered abuse at the hands of his father, and emotional neglect from his mother. As a result, we make the decision to not have children, so that he would not "pass the sword to the next generation" (his words). He died at age 49 from a heart attack, which I'm sure was in part due to the PTSD that he suffered from his childhood. Your information is so important for people working through these issues.

      Again, thank you.

    • izettl profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Izett-Irwin 

      9 months ago from The Great Northwest

      @Chitrangada Sharan

      Thank you so much. Yes, the key is acknowledging it, being honest about it and not hiding family trauma as it only hurts future generations.

      When we heal ourselves, we are collectively helping others too!


    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      9 months ago from New Delhi, India

      Wonderful and thoughtful article on this important subject.

      I agree with you that unless taken effective steps to solve the problem, the trauma can be passed on to the generations. It’s important to accept the facts and deal with them. This does happen in many families and sadly there is a tendency to avoid or run away from the ‘issue.’

      You have some very helpful suggestions.

      Very sorry to know about your dad.

      Thanks for sharing this excellent article.


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