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.
Be honest with your children about what has happened to you, and your family before you. When you share your family history, it can come as a great relief to children who have been carrying burdens that they don’t understand. Just be sure to do this delicately, because there is evidence that telling the story of trauma can be re-traumatizing.
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.
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Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (Viking; 2016), and director of The Family Constellation Institute in San Francisco, is a leading expert in the field of inherited family trauma. A sought-after lecturer, he has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the Western Psychiatric Institute, Kripalu, The Omega Institute, The New York Open Center, and The California Institute of Integral Studies. His articles have appeared in Elephant Journal Psychology Today and Psych Central, and his poetry has been published in The New Yorker.