Breaking Cycles of Generational Trauma

The Importance of Healing And Learning How to Be Better Parents For Our Children

As I laid awake at night pregnant with my first child, a million thoughts would race through my mind. Will I be a good mom? I don’t feel maternal. Will I be able to be selfless? I like doing what I want. How will I deal with this change? Will it change me forever? Will I become my mom?

That last one always hit me like a tonne of bricks. 

Being launched into adult life after a turbulent, traumatic and unstable childhood, I was determined to make a better life for myself than I had experienced up until that point. I got married to an amazing, kind and stable man. I worked hard, we bought a home and most importantly, I worked on my mental health.

Sure, it was a difficult childhood but I was out of it now, happily married, financially stable, emotionally stable and in control of my future. I got to a place where I felt good about who I was, my place in the world and also the state of my well being. I felt good about the kind of person I became. I forgave those who hurt me and I began to believe that the past was in the past. 

The bulk of the work was done, I thought. The cycle was broken. I was not her. 

Then, I had kids.

In this blog I’m going to cover:

  • Realizing the cycle of generational trauma 
  • Different kinds of trauma
  • Why parenting can trigger childhood trauma 
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences – take your ACE score
  • The lasting effects of trauma
  • Breaking the cycle of generational trauma
  • Resources to help heal trauma

Seeing My Unhealed Childhood Traumas as a New Mom: Realizing It was Generational

Becoming a parent awakens all of the unhealed trauma in our pasts in the most unexpected ways. Realizing that I was going to be somebody’s mom and coming to terms with the weight of that responsibility brought me to my knees. I knew I had to be better, but how?

The love I felt for my children from the very moment of their birth was palpable. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine being the person to cause my children so much pain. 

I felt this intrinsic duty to stop anything in the world from hurting the humans I have created. 

I began to wonder how any parent could be the source of pain in their children’s lives. I began to think through my own childhood experiences through a new lens.

Why couldn’t my own mother do the things I was doing for my babies? I would do ANYTHING for them, to keep them safe, to be there, to make sure they knew they were loved. I would make sacrifices and I would put their needs above my own when necessary. 

Why was it so difficult for her to do what felt so natural for me?

How come it is so easy for me to prioritize my children when it seemed near impossible for her to prioritize me as a child? I was filled with questions in the early days. 

I eventually learned it was my mother’s own trauma that made her the way she was, as is often the case when our parents fall short of what we needed from them.

I made a decision early on that I would choose love, that I would choose kindness, that I would choose patience, that I would not be anger filled, or jealous or spiteful or naggy or selfish or self loathing or narcissistic. Those choices have proven to be far more difficult in practice than anticipated. 

Those choices sounded great on paper, but the reality was that I had so many unhealed parts, that when it came to dealing with stress as a parent, it all came out. I began to understand my own parents a little more for the very first time. 

I began to learn about cycles of generational trauma. Hurt people, hurt people. It didn’t start with my parents. But, I want it to end with me.

Different Kinds of Trauma: All Of It Is Valid

My trauma is my own, but many people all over the world have a different kind of trauma. Domestic violence, death in the family, exposure to criminal activity, substance abuse, unmanaged mood disorders in parents, addictions, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse are just some of the things that can cause trauma in children.

Something as “simple” as having a parent who was emotionally unavailable or dissociated during our childhood can have significant effects on us, as adults. These are all things that cause us to develop our own unhealthy communication skills, coping mechanisms and behaviours which in turn negatively affect our kids.

Generational trauma is the term that describes the impact of trauma on the next generation. It’s a trauma that doesn’t start and end with one person – it’s “passed down” onto future generations. 

It doesn’t matter what the source of our trauma is, and there is no sliding scale for who has it worse. It is all relative, it all affects us, and each person’s story matters.

Unfortunately trauma is incredibly common. Here are some quick stats: 

  • 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence 
  • Nearly half of America’s children have experienced at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma 
  • In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem
  • By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have—or have had—a mental illness
  • People with a mental illness are twice as likely to have a substance use problem compared to the general population
  • Rates of youths’ exposure to sexual abuse, another common trauma, are estimated to be 25 to 43% 

Comparative suffering does nothing to help us and only gets in the way of our validation and journey to wellness. We do ourselves and others a disservice when we pretend that because someone else had it worse, our experiences don’t matter. Each of us has a story and our experiences are not only valid but we deserve to heal. Our emotional and mental health is important and has a direct affect on our ability to cope with life stressors.  

As we process our lives and any past traumas that have lasting effects, OUR story is the one that matters. OUR experiences are the ones that shape us. OUR lives and our children’s lives are the ones it will affect. So regardless of the types of trauma we experience, it is equally important to address it, to heal and to develop healthy ways to move forward. When we do the work, we end up both intentionally and unintentionally passing on our healthy behaviours, environments and actions.

This is how we break the cycle. 

Why Becoming a Parent is So Triggering For Our Childhood Trauma

When we bring our babies home we are madly in love with them. We would never do anything to hurt them. We are committed to being the very best versions of ourselves for them. They deserve it. 

Then we become the most sleep deprived exhausted versions of ourselves we have ever been. There is a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a torture tactic, because it works. It can make you feel like you are really losing it. 

Then our relationships with our significant others become strained. We are faced with feelings like jealousy and resentment and a multitude of other unexpected relationship stressors. 

Then we realize that our best laid parenting plans aren’t turning out exactly as we wanted. We slowly realize that we have so much less control over everything than we thought we would.  

Work stress, financial stress, family stress, decision making fatigue, the mental load, and everything else comes crashing down over you. 

All of a sudden, the balanced version of yourself you worked hard to become is not so balanced anymore. The stress of becoming a parent can begin to take its toll.

Turns out, parenting is really hard and can make us into the worst version of ourselves we have ever seen. It hits us like a ton of bricks. We had the best of intentions and now we can’t cope. The thing that was supposed to make us into our best selves challenges everything and sometimes makes us quite the opposite. 

Sometimes, this is when we begin to see our parents in ourselves. Sometimes, it’s a wake up call. 

After the birth of my second child, my experience with postpartum depression manifested as rage, and it really opened my eyes. It was the first time in my life when I felt like I was becoming something I wasn’t, and it was absolutely terrifying. 

This is when I knew I needed help. 

Photo by: John and Samantha
Diary of an Honest Mom Floral Design

The Meaning of Adverse Childhood Experiences and How they Affect Us as Adults

Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) is a term which was coined in the 90’s by a study that looked at our experiences with childhood trauma and how they increase our chances of dealing with physiological and psychological health problems throughout our life. Read more about ACEs in this article by Your Parenting Mojo. 

Children who experience domestic violence, susbstance abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, and who are exposed to criminal activity have a great risk of developing negative coping skills, which then negatively affect their own children. This perpetuates the cycle of trauma for generations until someone decides to heal and change. It is a conscious choice and extremely hard work.  

If you are interested in checking your ACE score, you can take this quiz.

Our traumatic childhood experiences sometimes aren’t as obvious as the ones listed. Being raised in a home with an emotionally immature parent can be traumatic. Being raised in a broken home, living in poverty or experiencing food insecurity can cause trauma. 

Sometimes it can be hard to name our experiences as trauma, but doing so helps us to get the help we need and learn how to heal. 

Parenting with ACE’s is hard. Many of us mimic the behaviour of our parents without ever meaning to. The pain of childhood trauma lasts, and many of us think we have learned how to deal with it in our own way. But without realizing it, our parents have taught us how to unhealthily react to stressors by exposing us to their habits, behaviours and problematic coping mechanisms.

With all of the stressors that come with parenting, parenting itself can be a trigger for someone with a trauma history. We end up doing the exact things we swore we would never do because it’s simply how we have been conditioned for so many years.

As they say, old habits die hard. 

The Lasting Effects of Trauma: Why Your Mental Health Matters and The Importance of Self Care

So our trauma has caused us to have problems, no real surprise there. We’ve all got problems right? 

Looking at trauma stress and its effects on the brain, this  study  shows how trauma is linked  to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, ADHD, substance abuse, personality disorders, dissociation and other health problems. The effects are long lasting. 

Just coping might work for some for a little while, but when we have kids all of our past and present pain is magnified. All of the things our trauma caused gets brought to the surface. All the ways we never learned to cope have a big fat light shone on them because life just got harder and little humans are relying on you. 

Part of the struggle of breaking generational trauma through raising our children, is that we often don’t begin the work until they are already here, and then it is even harder. If you are reading this, and you don’t have children, I would highly recommend getting help before you have children. 

For the rest of us, for the moms, here is the thing: I know you are busy. I know there is a lot on your plate. I know it feels like there are 99 tabs open in your brain at any given moment. I know you don’t have time for therapy. I know it feels like just another task. I know you are exhausted and that you have so much to think about. I know it can be easy to put yourself last because everyone else needs so much of you. 

But that is the thing: they need you. 

They don’t need the depleted, frustrated, angry, resentful, sad, hurt, just barely getting by version of you. They deserve to have a mom who is well. They deserve to have a mom who feels whole. You deserve to feel whole too. 

And it is not that we cannot be whole when we struggle with our mental health or ADHD or any of the other things that our trauma caused, but if left unchecked, untreated and unhealed, we decline and our children feel the effects.

We unintentionally perpetuate the cycle of trauma. 

There is almost nothing more important than doing the work. We deserve to have the full human experience as whole people and our children deserve parents who look after themselves too. We all deserve the most healed versions of ourselves.

Self care isn’t just a buzzword, it is something we all need to practise. It isn’t just bubble baths and face masks and weekends away with the girls or Starbucks coffee everyday. 

Self care is thinking positive things about ourselves. It is prioritizing alone time, hobbies, exercise, nutrition, doctors visits, therapy sessions, reading and just doing things we love. Self care is taking time for ourselves without guilt.

Photo by: John & Samanta

It is setting boundaries and learning to say no. It is the intentional actions we take everyday, the healthy habits we form, the things we do on a regular basis that contribute to our mental health and our sense of self worth. If no one has told you, you deserve to practice self care. 

Doing the work of healing generational trauma begins with healing ourselves and treating ourselves well. Our children feel the ripple effect. 

The work is hard, but the work is worthy. It matters so much. 

Getting Help To Heal Our Trauma to Stop the Cycle of Generational Trauma

It’s no secret that trauma is passed down through generations, and while many of us WANT to make a change, it doesn’t just happen overnight. 

First, we need to educate ourselves to find out all the ways our trauma is having an effect on us, then we need to work through it to help ourselves, and then we need to parent in a conscious way that doesn’t cause the trauma that we experienced. It is NOT linear and often we are trying to heal our own inner child while parenting our own children. 

This viral Tiktok of mine exemplifies part of my own struggle with breaking the cycle. 

I want to give you hope that change is possible. It is possible to heal. It is possible to break the cycle. It is possible to be better. It is possible to learn new ways of being and new ways to parent that don’t damage our children. 

Getting help can look a multitude of different ways. 

I highly recommend seeing a professional like a clinical psychologist, social worker or psychotherapist but also realise that not everyone has the privilege of enough time or money to access one. 

There are other ways to learn that are more accessible to those without the resources to access professional help. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things you can do to begin the journey to self awareness, healing and breaking the cycle:

Aside from listening, watching, reading and connecting with educators to learn about generational trauma there are other things that have helped me on my path such as:

  • Connecting with others going through the process 
  • Sharing my story with other safe people
  • Journaling 
  • Talking openly with my partner about it
  • Doing inner child work 

Healing Past Trauma and Breaking Cycles is a Journey, not a Destination

It took years for our trauma to shape us into the people we are today. Healing that trauma is not going to happen overnight.

There are chemical reactions that have happened in our brains and physiological changes that happened to our bodies when we went through trauma. Working through that, finding healing and peace, and then parenting in a way that reflects our healing will take a lot of energy out of us.

There are going to be ups and downs when we work to heal and become the parents we needed and the parents we want to be. It’s going to take more time than we want it to. We aren’t perfect and that’s okay. 

If you are going through this process I hope you give yourself so much grace. 

I hope you know you are not alone. 

I hope you are patient. 

I hope you know the journey isn’t linear. 

I hope you know your mistakes don’t define you. 

I hope you know your past doesn’t define you. 

I hope you know that the work you are doing will cause a positive ripple effect for generations to come. 

Just as our trauma ripples for generations, so does our healing. 

This work you are doing to make a better future for yourself and your children is worthy, it is powerful and it matters more than you know. 

If you know someone who could benefit from reading this article, don’t hesitate to share it with them. 

 

Take care my friend!

-Libby

Check out this Tiktok I made on being a cycle breaker, follow me, and subscribe to my Honest Mom’s Inner Circle. I want to stay connected!

If this resonates with you, please check out my cycle breaker merch. Part of the proceeds go towards helping at risk women in my local area because giving back matters.

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Libby
Libby
I’m Libby, a relatable mom of 2 but also a recovering perfectionist, anti-mom shamer, mental health advocate and generational cycle breaker! I don’t take myself seriously and want you to know that you are a good mom.

8 Responses

  1. This is a difficult topic for me, I want to understand that my mother grew up in a time where mental health was not acknowledged like it is today. She was taught it was better not to feel and just move forward to avoid a breakdown. This is what she expected of me. I always felt like I wasn’t as strong as her because I had so many feelings. I saw myself hurting my children early on, requiring them to keep their feelings to themselves so I could continue moving forward, it was what was best for us. I work very hard to try and repair what I did to them so they grow up knowing they are allowed to feel and have their feeling validated. I am angry at my mother but want to understand her. I fear that my children won’t allow me that same grace if I’m not able to repair what I think I have broken.

    1. Thank you for sharing. You are definitely not alone in your feelings, and you’re right, there was not an awareness in our parents generation of mental health etc. In the words on Maya Angelou “When we know better we do better”. I try to own my behaviour and reconcile with my kids when I have wronged them and I believe it is the most important thing we can do to repair anything that’s broken. All the best to you. Give your self some grace <3

      1. I couldn’t agree more with this more. Repair repair repair with our kids (and partners). One of my biggest resentments with my own mother (still to this day at 42) is that she refuses to acknowledge when she hurts someone and refuses to apologize. It is so hurtful when your feelings are invalidated. I went through a good portion of my adult life putting my own feelings last, likely for this exact reason.

  2. Just wanna say it’s a pleasure to watch you and read about your experiences. And so many people are rooting for you ❤️

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