How To Tell If You Inherited Emotional Trauma and How To Break the Pattern

With new discoveries in epigenetics now making headlines, many of us are asking an important question: What are my children really inheriting? Can my baggage, the unfinished business I don’t deal with, pass on to my kids? Without knowing it, could I be hurting them?

To answer this comprehensively, we need to look at the science. The newest research in epigenetics tells us that you and I can inherit gene changes from traumas that our parents and grandparents experienced. It goes like this: When a trauma occurs, our bodies make a physiological change to better manage the stress.

This adaptive change can then be passed down to our children and grandchildren biologically preparing them to deal with similar trauma. This can be a good thing, unless, of course, the inherited changes create even more stress.

If our grandparents, for example, were traumatized from living in a war-torn country—explosions going off, people getting killed, the rattle of gunfire close by—they could pass on a survivor skill set to us—a body on hyper-alert, reflexes to react quickly to loud noises, and other such protective responses. This skill set would be helpful were we to also live in a country at war. However, living in a safe environment where this inheritance isn’t useful, the constant hypervigilance can create havoc in our bodies.

So, here’s the bad news: Yes, it’s true. Our parents’ and grandparents’ pain—their fears, their angers, their grief, their shutdowns—can all unwittingly become ours, a legacy we can perpetuate in our family. And here’s the sad part: Few of us ever make the link between our issues—our unexplained fear, anxiety, and depression—and what happened to our family members in a previous generation.

 Instead, we believe that we’re the source of our problem, that something must be wrong with us, or broken inside us, that makes us feel the way we do.

And it doesn’t end there. These unconscious patterns, along with whatever business we leave unfinished, can then be passed on to our children, and even to their children. What could be more painful than to see our children suffering, knowing that they continue to feel the pain we’ve left unattended?

Is there any good news? Absolutely. There are actions we can take that can help break the cycle.

Here’s the short list of things you can do:

1. Heal Your Own Stuff

Reconcile your broken relationships with your parents as well as with your child’s other parent. When we find someone’s behavior challenging, it’s helpful to consider the traumatic events in his or her family history. Remember, the residue of pain can pass forward. And children, because of their great innocence and loyalty, are easy targets.

Children can unconsciously carry what’s unresolved between their parents and mirror it in their own relationships. Or (as we’re learning from epigenetics), they can relive what’s unresolved behind the parents.

2. Shake the family tree and see what falls out.

What family secrets have been hidden? What stories didn’t get told? What traumas have never fully healed? It can be important to know these things, especially if we’re unconsciously reliving elements of traumas that don’t belong to us.

3. Tell your kids what you know about the traumas in your family.

Tell them the terrible things that happened to you and whatever you know about what happened to your parents and your grandparents. They could be the unwitting recipients of painful feelings from the past. When you tell them what tragedies smolder in the family history, it can come as a great relief to them—especially if they make the connection that they’ve been carrying what belongs to you or to your parents or grandparents.

I once worked with a guy who unconsciously attempted to atone for a murder his grandfather had committed. My client had attempted suicide three times. Finding himself still alive after the third attempt, he sought help. When I pointed out that he had been attempting to pay the ultimate price for crimes he never committed, he turned to me and said, “I don’t have to die? You mean it’s not me who needs to die?”

I’ve found that if we ignore the past, it can come back to haunt us. Yet when we explore it, we don’t always have to repeat it. We can break the cycle of suffering, so that our children can be free from having to live our pain in their lives.

Published in MIND BODY GREEN, June 13, 2016

The Legacy of Unfinished Business

Children with anxiety disorders. Children who self injure. Children who suffer with unexplained symptoms. One of the most challenging aspects of my work with inherited family trauma is the knowledge that the unfinished business you and I don’t heal personally can end up in the laps of our children. It would be a great relief if the fallout from our painful experiences leave with us when we leave this planet. But it doesn’t appear to work that way. Unfortunately, as I’ve seen again and again, our unresolved issues often look for resolution in the lives of our children and grandchildren. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung wrote: “It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to . . . complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.”

Scientific research, now making headlines, tells us that a newborn doesn’t come equipped with a clean hard drive. We’re now learning that the egg or sperm, that will one day become us, can become imprinted with the our parents’ or grandparents’ stressful experiences, genetically programing us to cope with the traumas they endured. These epigenetic imprints can then be passed on to our children, and even on to our children’s children.

I recently got a call from a woman who told me that her son had been diagnosed with a strange neurological condition—one the doctors hadn’t seen before. Patients with chronic or perplexing symptoms are often referred to me when inherited family trauma is suspected. The boy slurred his words and dragged his feet as though he were inebriated. The doctors consulting on the case postulated that the boy suffered from a mild cerebral palsy, but they weren’t able to agree on the diagnosis.

I asked the boy’s mother to tell me about the family history. Specifically, I wanted to know more about the boy’s father. “That no good alcoholic,” she said. “I left him as soon as I found out I was pregnant.”

Whether the mother made the right decision in leaving or not, the decision itself came with consequences—consequences she hadn’t connected to her son’s condition. As the story went, the boy had never met his father. Submerged under layers of pain were the vulnerable feelings that had once brought the couple together, and a child into life. As much as the mother had tried to eliminate the father from her world, his presence could be felt in the next generation. A strange symmetry now linked father and son together. The boy’s condition appeared to mimic the very alcoholic behaviors that his mother had rejected. The slurred speech and dragging feet of the drunken father—were now the only way the father and son remained connected.

Parents often tell me, “If I only had the power to take my child’s pain away, I would.” Well, we actually do have the power. We just need to summon the strength to heal what’s painful in our lives, and drop the story and judgments we have that keep the story entrenched.It often comes down to having the courage to open our hearts to those we feel have hurt us.

Like it or not, we are the guardians of the next generation—the gatekeepers, if you will. We play a huge part in how the lives of our descendants will unfold. The messes we make, the crimes we commit, the poor decisions, conscious or unconscious, the shutdowns, the broken relationships we avoid repairing—all of these count. When we tidy up our messes, not only do our lives seem to work better, but our children benefit as well. With what we’re now learning about epigenetics, it’s our responsibility to keep our lives in order so that our children can be free to live theirs.

Published in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, April 28, 2016