The Transgenerational Train
When looking at generational influences in parenting you can think of a train with the youngest generation represented by the car in the front. There is a lot of energy, zest, and excitement in the front of the train. You are ready to move forward and you see the future. The cars behind you are your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. For this train to function optimally you do not want too much friction in the cars behind you. In fact what you want is that the momentum of previous generations is able to support the whole train to move forward.
But this isn’t always the case. What if your Dad felt that he wasn’t good enough for his father? Maybe your mom was neglected. Perhaps there was the death of a child that was never grieved or the influence of large scale traumatic events such as the Holocaust or Hiroshima. What if the traumas of the past remained taboo subjects that you couldn’t talk about? What if, as a child, you felt you needed to take care of your mother so much that you sometimes resent having to take care of your daughter because no one was there for you? When previous generation’s traumas or role reversals remain unprocessed it can slow down or interfere with our forward focused energy leaving us feeling heavy or stuck.
“Raising a child is one of the most courageous and vulnerable actions we can take as human beings. Shadows of the past churn and turn towards the light asking us to pay attention to unexpected feelings of ambivalence, comparison, and inadequacy in parenting. Unearthing, and addressing these feelings when they arise unwinds shame and is an essential key to healing our transgenerational attachment legacies”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Shadow legacies in parenting
Choosing to become a parent is complex! We turn excitedly towards a new child and simultaneously grieve the life we knew. There are many, many joys of raising a child. However, what can lurk in the shadows are fears of inadequacy, unexpected feelings of resentment, and a need to navigate our way through our internalized familial and cultural memories, expectations, and stories. Quiet conversations might sound something like:
- I feel resentful towards my child for getting experiences that I never had.
- I am constantly comparing myself to other moms who seem to have it all together. Is there something wrong with me?
- I feel stuck between my mom and my kids; I can’t keep everyone happy!
- I don’t want to yell at my kids the way I was yelled at but I am doing it anyway, I feel so disappointed with myself.
- I can’t explain it but sometimes I just don’t feel safe when I am home alone with my child.
Does any of this sound familiar? So often we hide these darker feelings of parenthood for fear of being judged or perceived as a bad parent. However, it is when we ignore or avoid these feelings that they tend to slide out into arguments with our spouses or interfere with bonding and attachment to our children.
Children offer the perfect opportunity to evoke the “unfinished business” of your own childhood. Early attachment communication is right-brained and non-verbal. Parents and children connect through voice tone, facial expressions, and body language that overtime develops into “implicit” or body memories. It is our implicit memory systems that are most susceptible to being transferred across generations.
As parents we are sometimes able to be conscious of our emotional reactions to our children and sometimes we get hijacked by our fear or anger and behave in ways that we later regret. It is common to feel the impulse to reject, distance, or even punish, the expressive or aggressive child. Dan Siegel, author of several excellent books including Mindsight, emphasizes slowing down and becoming mindful of our emotional and body reactions to children. When we are mindful we have the opportunity to reflect on the situation, imagine the experience of another, and have greater choice about how we respond. We can ask ourselves, “What do I want to give to my children that will be in their best interest and will best serve them in the world?”
Here are some examples of common sticky parenting situations:
- Think about a time when your child has been angry at you; maybe one of those “I hate you” moments. What memories do you have of anger in your family of origin? Were you able to express anger as a child? How comfortable are you with anger in your life now?
- Now think about a time when your infant was crying and you could not comfort him or her. What do you notice in your body? What are you feeling now? Maybe you notice some helplessness or grief. Do you have any memories associated with those feelings?
- What about a time when your child refuses to go to bed and you are tired at the end of a long day? How do you feel when you think about that? Maybe you notice frustration or you feel out of control. In what way have you felt this way before?
Take a moment to reflect on how you might respond or have reacted in similar situations. What do these moments teach you about your family legacy?
Looking back to move forward
Did you know that research is showing that we benefit in many ways from reflecting on our ancestors and our family legacy? You can read more about this in my blog on how transgenerational awareness facilitates resilience. In regards to developing healthy attachment to your children, “looking back” involves reflecting on how you were raised and the nature of your attachment with your parents. You may also look further into how your parents were raised and what their relationships were like with your grandparents. When we look across generations we start to see themes. Here is an example:
A client came into my office pregnant with her first child. She stated “I have lived my life constantly comparing myself to others. I never felt that I can accept myself for who I am and I do not want to pass this feeling onto my child.” As we looked at her family history we started to trace this theme across generations. She remembered going to social events with her family and the pressure she received from her mom to look perfect. We continued to look more deeply into her family history. She described how her mother became tense when they visited grandma but she also recalled her own positive memories of her relationship with her grandmother; a connection that they shared despite her mother’s discomfort. As she looked more deeply into her family history she remembered a story that her grandmother shared with her; about how she always felt envious of her brother because the family focused on him going off to school to become a doctor but they didn’t consider that she too wanted to go to college. As we unpacked her family history my client processed her thoughts and feelings. She grieved for herself and her maternal lineage and as she cried she felt lighter, as though she were freeing herself and her child from the legacy of feeling “not good enough.”
Receiving the gift
The ultimate challenge in parenting is to receive the “gift” of your child. We receive the gift of a child when we open ourselves up to their world, allow ourselves to approach our child with acceptance, wonder, and awe. Receiving the gift also involves allowing ourselves to feel the feelings that children evoke within us, even when it is uncomfortable, and getting curious about how these feelings may be connected to our personal and family history. As we look back at our transgenerational legacies we find gifts there as well; strengths such as perseverance, humility, and sacrifice that allow us to stand here today. There are times when the structure and knowledge of psychotherapy holds the depth of container for the process needed to unpack our transgenerational legacy. I am deeply appreciative of the insights and “a-ha” moments I have achieved in the presence of my therapist and am honored when I can support my clients. It is my belief that each time we unravel transgenerational wounds we clear the path for positive attachments with our children, giving a gift to the next generation of greater choice and freedom.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.