Also known as generational “curses” or “cycles,” these are negative thoughts, beliefs, actions, behaviors, or attitudes passed down through families.
If your mission in life is to be the best parent you can be, there's a good chance you've thought about ways you can do things differently than your own parents might have. After all, even the most loving of parents make plenty of mistakes along the way — and it can be very easy to perpetuate generational cycles or patterns (sometimes called generational "curses") without even realizing you're doing it.
Even if you're not passing along a cycle of explicit physical and/or emotional abuse, it's possible to pass along intergenerational trauma unknowingly, explains Terri Bacow, Ph.D., New York-based psychologist and author of Goodbye Anxiety.
What is intergenerational trauma, and how does it manifest?
Each person reacts to trauma and stress differently, and many times, the way we react is a cumulative effect of the situations we witnessed in our younger years, says Bacow. Then, when we have kids of our own, it's easy for those cycles to continue. "Intergenerational trauma includes the effects that can be experienced by people who live with people who have experienced trauma," she says. "Coping and adaptation patterns developed in response to trauma can be passed from one generation to the next."
Those responses — whether they be your immediate instinct to yell, or cry, or withdraw altogether — were likely framed by emotional experiences you lived through as a child, ultimately becoming the coping tools/mechanisms you relied on to keep yourself safe. For instance, if you grew up in a family where yelling or tumultuous situations were common, you might have adapted by retreating whenever possible. It's then easy to understand why you might do the same as an adult when confrontation arises or when someone raises their voice.
The cycle then becomes a problem when you find yourself handling situations with your own family in the same way — and a lot of times, these patterns can be extraordinarily subtle. (That is, not just your textbook signs of abuse such as verbal or physical abuse.) "A typical way that generational patterns manifest is how parents manage frustration in themselves and their children, and how they deal with conflict," says Bacow. "For example, some adults have learned 'conflict avoidance' from their own parents (i.e., 'We don't talk about negative emotions'), so it may be tempting to repeat this pattern with one's own children (i.e., not allowing them to express difficult feelings)."
"Another example would be if your parents did not avoid conflict and instead over-expressed negative emotions, and you are then subconsciously repeating this pattern by raising your voice with your kids or inappropriately expressing frustration around them."
Avoidance and overcompensation are the two major ways generational cycles/patterns are perpetuated, says Bacow. "If you find yourself avoiding conflict or negative emotions OR you find yourself excessively expressing anger and losing your cool very easily, these could be more subtle signs," she says, adding one major caveat: "Parents are allowed to experience frustration and lose their temper from time to time — there is nothing wrong with this."
How can you break the cycle?
If you're concerned about breaking the cycle, you're already on a great path, as it means you've cultivated enough self-awareness to know that your childhood experiences weren't necessarily the healthiest — and that's exactly step one towards ensuring your own children will be free of those chains.
Of course, much of this work will need to come from you and any other caregivers in your children's lives, says Bacow. "Breaking a generational cycle or pattern involves shifting behavioral responses and communication styles to be more appropriate and adaptive. This shift would also include a more effective use of coping strategies — for example, if you come from a family where yelling is prominent and you decide not to yell at your own kids, you can instead practice breathing and other calming strategies when faced with conflict."
Developing healthy coping and communication skills is rarely easy, but it's worth it, both for your own well-being and that of your loved ones. "It is important to model emotion regulation for your kids to the best of your ability so they can learn good strategies for emotion management, effective communication, and coping with stress," says Bacow. "This does not have to happen perfectly — parents already put so much pressure on themselves — but parents should try to be role models for these skills when they can so that children will pass down good skills to their own families down the line."
Breaking these patterns is tough, notes Bacow, adding, "If you as a parent are finding this too difficult, it may be an optimal moment to seek therapy. Seeking therapy doesn't mean anything is wrong with you — we all need support!"
We also all need and deserve an outlet to express our emotions — the good, the bad, and the ugly "wanna cry/yell/throw a f*cking fit" — and there's no better place to do so than in a shame-free, judgment-free space like therapy to do so.