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.