Trans-generational Healing and Your Family Ancestry
We are all aware of the impact of stressful or traumatic events in our lives such as the death of a loved one, facing a life-threatening illness, or unexpected job loss. Most of us acknowledge that even positive events such as the birth of a child or a move into a new home can also be stressful. However, what about the invisible threads of stress that can linger from the family generations that preceded you? Research on trans-generational healing suggests that attending to your family stories enhances emotional health and facilitates resilience in both adults and children.
What is Trans-Generational Trauma?
Family systems theory has long understood that the relational, behavioral, and emotional patterns across generations provide a broader understanding of us as individuals and our children. Trans-generational trauma refers to the ways that trauma gets transferred from one generation to another either directly or indirectly. Unresolved trauma of one generation is a legacy that can be passed down to the next generation.
Parents will often say “I don’t want to hover over my children like my mother did and I’m doing it anyway” or “I don’t want to yell at my kids the way my father did but I find myself saying the same words sometimes!” Why do we repeat painful emotional and behavioral patterns across generations? According to neuroscience, we all have implicit memory systems that hold our experiences of the past in the form of images, sensations, and emotions. The facial expressions, voice tone, and how you felt in your body as a child are readily accessible as you parent your child across similar situations and developmental stages.
Trans-Generational Awareness and Resilience
Research affiliated with Emory (Dr. Goodman) and George Mason Universities (Dr. Duke) indicated that assessment and awareness of trans-generational stories facilitates resilience. This was explored after 9/11 and Katrina with results suggesting that individuals who knew more about their family ancestry were better able to manage the effects of traumatic stress. Individuals with an internal narrative about the ups and downs of their family history show the greatest resilience. Here’s an example from our family’s story shared across generations:
Your grandfather grew up on the family farm as one of fourteen children. He was born during the great depression and was the youngest child. Life was not easy but he worked hard, went to college, and had his own family. When your grandpa was nine he had an illness that left him with health problems but he was helped by his sister and had a surgery that extended his life for many more years. Your grandparents were great parents who raised three strong boys before your grandfather died. One of our family’s saddest times was when your uncle died unexpectedly. But no matter what we always stuck together as a family.
In the “Do You Know” study from Emory University, researchers asked children questions like: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of how your parents met? Do you know about lessons your parent’s learned from good and bad experiences? The results indicated that children with greater knowledge about their family history were shown to have higher self-esteem, emotional health, and happiness!
One of the questions in the Emory University study asked children if they know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough. Talking about aunt so-and-so’s bitter and hardened face might actually help children trust the internal responses they are having. We might even go so far as to compassionately speak about her losses and hardships. When parents speak the truth, children are validated and their emotional intelligence is supported.
Further research even indicates a boost in cognitive performance related to active reflection on family history. In an Austrian study, entitled “The Ancestor Effect,” university students asked to think about their ancestral “roots” produced higher scores on problem solving and intelligence tests when compared to students thinking about random historical events.
The more that we know about our history, the greater choice we have about how we respond to stressful life events and triggering parenting moments. Take the time to reflect on the influences and experiences you bring from your past.
In my family, my mother and her mother had a highly strained, painful relationship that ultimately resulted in them having little contact. My mother’s father died before I was born and I did not have an active relationship with my maternal grandmother. Despite having a close relationship with my own mother, I have long felt the shadow of my mother’s ambivalent relationship with her mother. As an adult, I have explored the influences of my mother’s and grandmother’s past in my own psyche. When I became a mother to my daughter this maternal lineage dynamic amplified. No longer could I ignore the whispers of the past. When I actively turn toward the traumas caught in the branches of my family tree, I ultimately feel freer. I believe that I am not only freeing myself and my children, but that the unwinding of trauma extends into the past as well, allowing all to benefit.
Bringing the Ancestor Effect Home
Family traditions develop through repeated and repeatable events that are consciously chosen to mark time such as mealtimes, holidays, birthdays. Part of bringing the Ancestor Effect into your home involves actively tying the stories of the past into your present-day traditions. Family members only one and two generations ago have had to face personal and societal problems such as illness, wars, and economic declines. Thinking of the resilience in the generations before us highlights our capacity to overcome the adversities of this generation. Bringing family ancestry into your home might include:
- Taking time to reflect on the generations before you (both those living and deceased) including their hardships and accomplishments.
- Making a family tree and researching your roots.
- Framing and making visible photos of your ancestors.
- Taking a moment of gratitude for those that provide the foundations of your life today.
- Developing your own family traditions that help strengthen your family identity
A family tradition in my childhood home was to engage in a check-in at the dinner table. We have evolved this in our present-day home by having a dinner table “hi-lo” conversation. Each member gets a turn to share a positive moment from their day as well as a challenging or painful moment. When discussing a hardship we also explore ways of overcoming the hardship and what can be learned from the experience.
Trans-Generational Healing and Resilience Informed Psychotherapy
Whether working with an individual adult, a family, or a child there are benefits to tracking intergenerational patterns in therapy. Therapeutic interventions that illuminate your ancestral roots can provide insight into symptoms and diagnoses, can reveal invisible barriers to life goals, and can guide the healing process. I have a deep reverence for stories and their capacity to either bind us or free us depending on how they are told. As a clinical psychologist, my passion is in strength-based and resilience-informed psychotherapy. Should you need support, it is truly an honor to guide you through your own trans-generational healing.