“Surviving is important but thriving is elegant” Maya Angelou
In my series of blogs raising awareness on childhood trauma, I will tackle intergenerational trauma. I had scheduled to write and post this some weeks ago but the Coronavirus pandemic sent me into a disregulated and anxious state like many of you. I was reflecting the other day that it is the first time the whole of humanity is facing the same threat, I hope it makes us look inside of us and connect more with ourselves and the people we love.
What is intergenerational trauma?
From our families, we inherit genes, foundational life skills, traditions, knowledge, connections, wisdom, identity, resilience, etc. Sometimes we also inherit behavior patterns, coping strategies of our parents, grandparents who did not process their trauma. Children learn to be by mimicking the adults around them but when these adults are acting from their own trauma, children pick up patterns and behaviors that become their norm. The first victims of intergenerational trauma in families are the most fragile, i.e. children. They might suffer from anxiety or depression as adults without being able to pinpoint its origin, indeed intergenerational trauma in families is not easily recognised or its impact is minimised. Intergenerational trauma in families often happens in an overarching societal context which offers the setting that facilitates trauma to be passed down (poverty, patriarchy, war, colonialism, slavery, genocide, etc.).
Intergenerational trauma can affect a family, a community or a people. Some researchers are finding evidence that mass trauma like the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the displacement of American Indians and the enslavement of African-Americans, historical trauma of First Nations of Canada, colonialism have intergenerational impacts that are psychological, familial, social, cultural, neurobiological and possibly even genetic as well. Although epigenetics is still a new field of study, scientists want to uncover the roots of pain so that future generations might not be impacted.
In families with a pattern of trauma, there are many secrets, taboos, things that are not allowed to be talked about. Secrets that are kept but live and manifest themselves as poverty, being trapped in cycles of abuse, violence, depression, anxiety, self-sabotage, difficulty in relationships, etc. The individual is born with and into fears and feelings that don’t always belong to them but that shape their life in ways that they are not always conscious of.
Milestones in life can greatly affect a person living with intergenerational trauma (finishing university, starting a new job, having a baby, moving to a new country, being rejected by a new partner and suffering unsurmountable grief, etc.). Intergenerational trauma can also impact our physical health through the nutrition habits we develop and our relationship with food.
The horrors of war, pale in significance to the loss of a mother (Anna Freud)
Intergenerational Trauma in My Family
I inherited both positive experiences and trauma from my fore parents. In Bamunka and Foumban in Cameroon, where I spent the first years of my life, resilient women who were farmers or petty traders raised many children in polygamous homes. I just want to make it clear that we don’t only inherit trauma but also the joys, values and resilience of our ancestors. Both can live side by side. It is ok to recognise the positive attributes that we receive and still recognise negative patterns we want to change. It is also ok to recognise that parents and grandparents did not know better but yet recognise the impact of their decisions on our lives. My goal is not to lay blame but to chart a path for healing. The resilience, wisdom, kindness and connection to nature I have had all my life could not possibly have come from me alone, this is a gift I received.
In my family, women were married in their early teens and did not have an education. My great-mother, my grand-mother and my mother were all married very young. They did not have a voice or a choice. There was a space designed and designated for them by society and traditions; their fates were sealed without their consent. My cousin Adija was married off as a 14-year old girl and I remember how confused I was witnessing her sudden marriage as a child (Please find a note I wrote about her at the end of this article).
I was abandoned by my mother as a child, my mother was also abandoned by my grand-mother as a child and my grand-mother was also abandoned and abused through her childhood. My grandmother lived with a family far away from her family and was so badly treated that only her marriage to a young boxer, my grandfather, saved her from that life. When I was a child, she rarely came to visit us where we lived and when she came, I did not feel her and could not connect with her.
When Mom explained my grandmother’s abandonment and abuse, I better understood why she was/is disconnected. When my grand-father died, my grandmother abandoned Mom and her younger brother (who was still a baby). She had seven other kids and abandoned most of them, sending them to relatives to be raised in circumstances she did not know of. This pattern of abandonment has wrecked havoc in my maternal family. My uncles and aunts have kids that are not taken care of properly or who are abandoned. One of my uncles who was abandoned as a baby, for example, has seven children and does not bear to spend time with them. He tends to his business all day and when he gets home, he goes straight to his bedroom and even has dinner in there. Most of the children of my generation in my family have suffered from a lot of trauma. These patterns have enabled cycles of poverty, illiteracy, violence mostly against the girl-child to be passed down through generations. This all happened against the backdrop of colonised and post-independence Cameroon, a country that has been ruled by the same president for….37 years!
Mom made some key decisions that gave me the opportunity to see things differently today. She paid for my school fees (tuition) allowing me to attend school at first in my village Foumban and she later took us out of the reach of traditions thus avoiding my sister and I to be married off as teenage girls. Even though trauma in my family didn’t start with me as Mark Wolynn says in his book It didn’t Start With You, I hope to make it end with me.
What resources do we have now that those who came before us did not have? Is information on trauma easily accessible? Are those most in need of this information aware it is out there? If people cannot go to therapy what other means do they have to heal themselves?
How to Heal from Intergenerational Trauma
There is a Chinese Proverb that says that “The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name” . We cannot heal what we are not aware of, so the first step is to acknowledge the existence of trauma. Making the invisible visible is the prerequisite for transformation: acknowledging with compassion that certain patterns are the fruit of pain, trauma and oppression.
What are the things that were passed down to us that we do not want to pass on to our children? We can look at the past with compassion and still want to change dysfunctional patterns that do not serve us. It is a hard journey which is often met with misunderstanding from the family. Are you going to be the first one in your family to go to therapy? Take care of your health? We have to be willing to step into the uncomfortable to heal, even willing to risk rejection, being misunderstood to live well, to release the psychological charge even if it means being different.
I am a mom to three little girls and I have learnt that the three needs to be seen, to be heard and to be allowed to express who they truly are when not met can create trauma in children. Parenting with trauma is hard especially when none of these needs were met for me. So I am working on uncovering patterns that get in the way of my parenting. It requires consciously observing my thoughts and cultivating presence and learning to pause before I respond. Triggers are part of life but with enough awareness and practice we can learn how to respond to them.
For many decades, scientists believed the adult brain was fixed in its structure and functioning meaning that if a person had suffered from childhood trauma, it was believed that it was not possible to rewire the brain. We now know that the brain remains plastic until adulthood and positive interpersonal relationships can improve its trauma response. When trauma lives in the body, the stress response is constantly activated, we need to calm the brain’s stress response, this can only happen only in a positive low stress environment. Just as childhood trauma creates new neural pathways so do positive and constructive experiences. When these experiences are powerful enough, they can override the stress response. We need to practice/repeat the new sensations and feelings associated with the new positive experiences so as to create new neuropathways for neurons that fire off reasoning and regulation instead of fear and pain. Therapy, mindfulness meditation, journaling, practicing gratitude are ways to create new neural pathways that rewire the brain. It is difficult to change but with baby steps everything is possible.
Breathwork encompasses different breathing practices that are meant to calm the nervous system and get out of the fight-flight-freeze trauma response mode. You can start by breathing very deeply using the belly. Six full deep breaths while counting to five while you breathe and to five while you breathe out can already calm the nervous system and activate the state of calm. You can look up breath work on YouTube.
Grounding is a simple method to bring you to the present moment. It is noticing the things around you using your senses. One easy grounding technique that calms anxiety and overwhelm and can be easy to practice is the 54321 technique
5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. …
4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. …
3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. …
2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. …
1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste.
Mindfulness is paying attention in a non-judgmental way to our thoughts and actions. The practice of meditation can help practice being conscious/present (opposite of autopilot, unconsciousness). The continuous practice of meditation will engage our prefrontal cortex (conscious brain) allowing us to develop compassion, gratitude, loving kindness, generosity, peace, strength and leading us to better integrate the new positive experiences in our lives and heal from trauma. The limbic brain (amygdala) involved in trauma response will be less automatically activated. Meditation brings us to a state of relaxation and actually a person cannot be relaxed and triggered at the same time (these are opposite states). Mindfulness techniques can mitigate the effects of childhood trauma and improve a person’s quality of life.
When I understood what my mother’s life and childhood was and what I gather from my grandmother’s childhood make me have compassion for them. Circumstances in my mom’s life and her own trauma that brought her to make decisions that impacted my life. I realised that it wasn’t personal against me. Healing is ongoing, peeling the onion to shine light to new areas.
As a parent today, my partner and I will have to keep asking ourselves: what are the ghosts (parts of us that we inherited from our lineage) that we are acting out on our kids? When parents discover their ghosts and reclaim them as their own history, they allow children to create their own experience not conditioned by the ghosts of their parents.
We need to tell our stories, speak of the unspeakable to break free from these intergenerational patterns.
Below is a text I wrote about my cousin Adija 2 years ago.