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Learning I Needed to Break The Cycle of Generational Trauma and Face How My Childhood Shaped Me as a Person and A Parent

May 5, 2022

Mother and children sit on a wooden bench looking at nature

Realizing How Childhood Trauma Affects Adulthood: Facing How My Childhood Shaped Me as a Person and a Parent

Sitting back and fully realizing the impact of how childhood trauma affects adulthood can be overwhelming. 

*Trigger warning* the following contains content dealing with a range of topics from child abuse to physical and psychological abuse, and neglect. 

I am often struck by my ascension into a semi-normal life as a married mom of two and the sheer normality of not to screaming in my kids’ faces.  

When I look in the mirror I see a woman who is very much me, but deep down it still feels like I am playing pretend most of the time. I love my life, which isn’t something I could have said 20 years ago as a teenager on the brink of breakdown surrounded by volatility and rage.  

This afternoon I will pick up my kids after school, tell them how much I missed them, make them a snack and ask about their day. When they cry I will tell them it’s okay and I’ll tell them I cry too sometimes. I’ll tell them it’s not their responsibility to fix me if I am sad. When they get noisy I’ll ask them to turn down the volume or I’ll excuse myself for a break. If I yell at them, I’ll apologize. We will troubleshoot together. I’ll let them know I am an imperfect human and let them know it’s okay that they are too. 

This has become a part of how I parent, this is breaking the cycle of generational trauma. 

This is being a cycle breaker.

Tomorrow I have therapy. They think it’s a normal part of life. And it is. 

What is this insanity? How do I get to live this emotionally validating, peaceful life? And how the flip did I get here?

My trauma stems from poverty and emotional abuse and those things are not a part of my life anymore. 

@diaryofanhonestmom if this is you, you’re not alone #parenting #parentlife #generationaltrauma #motherhoodunplugged #honestmom #gentleparenting #momlife ♬ Repeat Until Death – Novo Amor

Growing Up Scared and Poor: Recognizing the Effects of Childhood Trauma

I grew up in poverty. 

I was raised by a single mom with undiagnosed and untreated personality disorders.  

Psychologically and physically abusive men came in and out of my life for many years.

We were nomadic, moving from place to place every year. 

I often lived in a perpetual state of fear and manipulation, mostly caused by the person who was supposed to love, care and protect me more than anyone else in the world. 

Unfortunately, my mom was the source of much of my trauma, and if not the source, definitely not the shelter from it. 

The psychological trauma I endured reached its dirty hands far into the depths of my life, my self-worth, my identity and my parenting journey more than I can ever dare to understand. I have spent years attempting to undo all that was done so that I don’t pass down my trauma, my coping mechanisms and my traits that I picked up throughout my first 18 years. 

My childhood and adolescence were woven with threads of manipulation, control, gaslighting and coercion, so much so I felt I was responsible for my mother’s moods, needs, actions and her struggles. I learned to both resent it and believe it, just like she did from her mother. And just like my grandmother likely learned from hers. This is part of my story of breaking cycles of generational trauma. 

I’m at a point now where I can say “It ends with me,” but it took me a long time to get here. 

What is Childhood Trauma and What Does It Look Like?

Libby Ward holder her son while her husband and daughter look into the distance.

Most of us are familiar with the word trauma, but are you aware of the term “complex trauma?”

Complex trauma refers to multiple traumatic events that children are exposed to, usually over a longer duration of time and often stemming from a caregiver or lack of care from a primary caregiver. 

Often, complex trauma is linked to generational trauma. 

According to Health, generational trauma is “trauma that isn’t just experienced by one person but extends from one generation to the next.”

“The symptoms of generational trauma may include hypervigilance, a sense of a shortened future, mistrust, aloofness, high anxiety, depression, panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, a sensitive fight or flight response, and issues with self-esteem and self-confidence” says psychiatrist Dr.Gayani DeSilva.

The trauma we inherit from our families is often present in the everyday nuanced emotional and relational experiences and expectations. It can come from having parents who had untreated mental health disorders, who abused drugs and alcohol, who experienced racism, poverty or discrimination,  who experienced domestic abuse, or who were narcissistic or emotionally immature. 

For more on this and the ramifications of growing up in distressing situations check out the ACE test which takes a look at our childhood adverse experiences and how they shape us and can contribute to long-term mental and physical health problems.

@diaryofanhonestmom to the toxic cycle breakers, I see you #breakinggenerationalcurses #generationaltrauma #traumahealing #parenting #parentlife #parentingaftertrauma ♬ Dating in your…… – Jamie Buckley pt and actor

The Effects of Childhood Trauma into Adulthood

When I was 16 I found out that my step dad was having an affair. He was one of many men that had been in and out of my life as a child, albeit the most long-standing. 

It was no surprise to me of course: he was never a good, kind, character-filled person. When my mom started a relationship with him 5 years prior, he had “rescued” us from the inner city, encouraged my mom to go back to school and get an education, got us a car and moved us into his hobby farm in the country. We were filled with hope, like always. 

It turned sour, like always.

The dream was quickly squashed. The hobby farm became a place that isolated us from the outside world, where we would work from morning until night and where I would experience the most traumatic events of my life. A nightmare. We were quickly made to live under a very strict, often psychologically and sometimes physically-abusive roof. As I look back on these experiences my stomach begins to turn, but that is a story for another day. 

I couldn’t wait to get away from him. There was only one problem: we had lived in the same house for 3 years, which was the longest we had ever lived in one place. And while I was not popular in highschool by any stretch of the imagination, for the first time in my whole life, I had kept a few friends for more than a year. I started to feel like I belonged. 

Living in that house with that abusive man was horrible for all of us, but it was consistent and it was the only time in my childhood that we always had enough to eat and a car to drive. The abusive man was the reason we escaped poverty. Looking back, I am sure that was one reason it made it hard for mom to leave. 

It was complicated.

@diaryofanhonestmom yes it’s hard work, it’s also incredibly rewarding #cyclebreakers #generationaltrauma #gentleparenting #honestmom #motherhood ♬ Sad Emotional Piano – DS Productions

When we (my mom, brother and I), eventually left this man, we moved to the city and it was hard. At 16, I went from living on a hobby farm in the countryside with a small group of friends who I liked, to a little apartment in a city at a brand new highschool. We had just left an extremely volatile and tumultuous living situation and had no idea what the future would hold: socially, financially, or safety wise. 

It continued to be tumultuous at home, a place that I feared. A place I didn’t belong. A place where my guard was up at all times. 

I had nobody to rely on, to talk to, to spend time with. I’d never been more lost or alone or confused. 

Things weren’t easy for mom either, which was made crystal clear. 

One night, I shared with my mom, that it was hard for me to be going through what we were going through. I was told that I hadn’t had to go through anything hard, not like her. And that all that had changed for me was my geography. 

At the time, it was like a gut punch, a reminder of all the other self focused mindsets and off handed comments that lacked empathy, awareness of others, or a maternal instinct. It was narcissism, though I didn’t know the word at the time. I now know that this was a part of her illness, but it hurt and it damaged me. 

I will never forget it. 

It’s not that I won’t forget because it was abnormal, but that it was the perfect depiction of the role I played my entire childhood: don’t do anything to dysregulate mom. Don’t share your thoughts or feelings because moms are more important. For me, this was very normal. It happened consistently throughout my childhood. 

Anger, rage, self focus, gaslighting, a diminishing of my feelings and needs, etc. 

My reaction? Do whatever is necessary to keep mom calm, quiet, and happy. Pretend you don’t have problems. Pretend you aren’t sad. Pretend, pretend, pretend. 

And yet, this woman who brought me into this world, was the person I still needed for affirmation and love and reassurance. I wanted her to be happy, and I knew that by managing my own wants and needs it would help. 

It was so complicated. 

I was made to be responsible for my mom from a young age, often doing things that children should not have to do. It was normal for me.

Becoming a Mom and The Deepest Desire to Break the Cycle.

I didn’t fully realize the abnormality of it all until I became a mom. 

Becoming a mom made me look at my life through a lens I had never once considered before. In the early years of my motherhood, filled with deep unending love for my children, and the desire to never see them hurt along with the desire to put myself last, it boggled my mind that a mother could put their children through so much, or say such hurtful things. 

As I began to take a closer look I realised that my own mother had endured significant trauma, causing a slew of traits and tendencies that were likely created out of a need for safety in her own childhood. She brought those tendencies into her adult life, unaware of their existence and unable to access the help now available to me and many others in our generation. 

These traits contributed to the revolving door of men in our lives, to the emotional issues that came from that, and to the role I learned to play in our house. 

There’s no excuse for some of the things that happened to me in my childhood, but there is a place to look at my own mother and wonder “how did you become like that?”

As I look down the line of mothers and fathers and history and context and cultural norms and science and research and health access and mental health stigma, it becomes alarmingly clear that it didn’t start with her. 

Part of this story tells the tale of a term I have come to know and understand deeply: narcissistic abuse. It’s been a lifelong experience that has had huge ramifications on my formative years and it’s a cycle I am desperate to break. This is an enormous responsibility. 

 

@diaryofanhonestmom I wanted you to know you’re not alone #thehonestmom #relateablemom #motherhoodunplugged #narcissisticparent #narcissisticmother #narcissism ♬ Repeat Until Death – Novo Amor

And, while I can’t go back and change my childhood or change her or make my ancestors understand or get help, I can say: it ends with me. 

Breaking cycles of generational trauma, reparenting my inner child, and parenting my children in a way that I was never taught or had modelled to me is the hardest thing that I have ever had to do. It is also the most important. I will write about that soon. 

This is a grain of sand in the bucket of my story, but part of it no less. 

I’m in a place in my life now where we have enough money, a stable home, and I have emotionally healthy people around me. I am intentional about who I let into our lives. I spend an unbelievable amount of time trying to teach myself the healthy ways to parent and relate to my children. It’s a magnificently hard balancing act. 

And I still feel like I’m playing pretend. 

But like I always say: it’s hard and it’s worth it. 

If you have resonated with this in any way, I encourage you to follow along as I share a little more not just about my life but about the lessons I’ve learned in my own healing journey. You can find me on Tiktok and Instagram daily where I share honest mom truths and vulnerably talk about all the hard stuff no one else will say. 

- Libby

Libby Ward in a dark blue tank top and jeans smiling at the camera

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13 Responses

  1. The stages of grief are not just for loss – an amazing book that has helped me is Anxiety The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Birdwell Smith.

    Thank you for sharing your journey 💙

  2. Wow. This was a very moving article. I relate on many levels… thank you for trusting us to share this with us.

  3. You are amazing! I know I’ve commented on your Instagram too. Even though we don’t have exactly the same story, we have some similarities and thanks for sharing your journey.
    I love that our generation is working on breaking the cycles ♥️

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story! It’s helps so much for those needing “some type” of confirmation of their feelings or what they have been through.

  5. Thank you for writing this down and sharing your journey of doing this hard work of reparenting, boundary keeping and breaking generational trauma. You deserved to be protected from harm and abuse and trauma. My heart breaks for the littler you who had to endure so.much. and I cheer adult you along as you take each hard step forward as you do this work.

  6. This was exactly what I needed to read right now. Thank you, from one generational trauma breaking momma to another.

  7. I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate what you share. Not one person in my circle of friends share a similar childhood to mine, so finding your Instagram account has been comforting, and lessened my feelings of loneliness and shame. As a fellow cycle breaker, our childhoods were strikingly similar, living with an undiagnosed bipolar, single mother.
    The work is hard and imperfect, and I’m saddled with immense feelings of guilt when I’m not my best self parenting. However, when I look at my happy kids, and the life my husband and I continue to build, I know I’m heading in the right direction. Thank you. ❤️

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. For me, having children and seeing how they responded to my emotionally abusive parenting was what made the light bulb go off. I hadn’t realized growing up that other families didn’t constantly criticize and shame their children. I learned to be an excellent people pleaser, filling the role of the good child. I’m slowly learning how to unlearn these behaviors and be the patient, empathetic parent my children need, but it is incredibly difficult and I’m still struggling to find my confidence. Thank you for helping me see I’m not alone in this and the journey is worthwhile. My very best to you. Your husband and children are so very blessed to have you.

  9. The way you vulnerably share your journey to break free from generational patterns is both powerful and inspiring. Thank you for shedding light on the importance of self-reflection and the courage it takes to face the impact of our past on our present and future. Your post is a beacon of hope for others on a similar path, reminding us all that breaking the cycle is an empowering choice that leads to growth and healing.

  10. Definitely relate to parts of your story! I cried — for you and for me.
    I am reading “Getting the Love you Want” which deals with how childhood trauma is reflected in your relationship (with a spouse/partner). Some good exercises that help you heal that as well.
    (I already follow you on Instagram 😉)

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