• Author Stephanie Hart

How Intergenerational Trauma Works

Most of us experience issues as children that carry forward to our adult lives and stop us from having a joyful life. However, a sustained unhealthy environment eventually becomes severe enough to act as trauma. With long-lasting effects on mental health, emotional abuse and trauma are incredibly harmful to mental wellbeing, and sadly, many of us have had to deal with it.

However, sometimes trauma can be passed down from one generation to the other in a vicious cycle. Experts have noted that intergenerational trauma can even be traced back to general attitudes of geographically identified culture. This observation means that intergenerational trauma can manifest in different ways depending on the context.

What Exactly Is Intergenerational Trauma?

To understand how intergenerational trauma can result in emotional abuse, we have to think back to our family histories. Experts have argued that when there is a big event in a family such as migration or divorce, the negative impacts that the family leaders feel can trickle down into the children.

These children will then develop unhealthy habits that they will infuse into their parenting, which will cause insidious covert emotional abuse. The problem here is that there is a pattern of inheriting harmful behavior such as fat-shaming or moral coercion that continues unchecked.

What does Intergenerational Trauma Look Like?

Intergenerational trauma can result in turbulent personal relationships with friends, parents, children, and spouses. This can be made worse with substance abuse and hostility. A strained mother-daughter relationship where the mother regularly abuses the child verbally, while being warm and loving on other occasions, can make the child extremely insecure.

Licensed therapist Tamara Hill has correctly identified "negative repeated patterns of behavior, including beliefs about parenting" as a way that intergenerational trauma perpetuates itself. I explore this in my book in a section called Family History. The following excerpt shows how stern my immigrant grandfather was with my father, trying to get him to be masculine:

“I imagine him disembarking from the ship as if it were the Ark, walking next to his father, a stern man with high cheekbones and a dismissive manner. “Stand up straight, Louie,” he said, “and don’t whimper.”

How Should We Move Beyond This?

I have often pondered the answer to this question. How are children who have been hurt by their parents supposed to move on? For me, it was throwing myself into writing and articulation. My podcast where I recite a letter to my father was incredibly healing, as was working on my collection of memoirs and stories.

I find it extremely sad when people are unable to break the cycle. Here’s an excerpt from my memoir “Mirror Mirror: A Collection of Memoirs and Stories," which shows how my mother was stuck in fear of her father:

“My mother told me other stories, too: of how her father had repeatedly cheated on his kind and loving wife, of how he’d let loose tirades that left his children shaking, of how he’d ripped the broom out of his clerk’s hand and furiously swept the corners where the boy had missed. Rage, my mother said, was his defining trait. It is hard for me to reconcile these stories with the memory of those summer days when my grandfather sat in his wheelchair, savoring the sugar cube in his mouth and savoring me.”

Perhaps through my experience of writing through my issues, I have reflected and come to terms with the way I was treated. Read through my book of short memoirs more insights into intergenerational trauma. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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