Multigenerational Trauma and Attachment: A type of Relational Trauma that is Often Passed Down Generation After Generation, Unintentionally
We all know that childhood trauma can have lasting impacts, especially if this trauma goes unresolved. The symptoms of PTSD and other chronic stressors take a toll on our physical, emotional, and cognitive selves. Traumas can be single incident traumas, a car accident, complex trauma, ongoing child (sexual) abuse, and yes even multigenerational, racism against African-Americans. In the case of multigenerational trauma, we know that this trauma can actually change our genes (epigenetics). Our genes mutate (change) in response to our environment. Just like with the developing brain what gets used repeatedly and consistently strengthens or becomes more developed and what is not, remains underdeveloped or weak. It’s there but not as prominent. It will also show itself in our behaviors and cognitions. The way we think and speak about ourselves and others. In the case of trauma what we are looking at is the effects of chronic activation of the Stress Response System and how this shows up across families and individuals. This often shows up in our attachment styles.
These past couple of weeks have been filled with the joyful event of graduation. My brother, my nephew, and some clients are all going through the big milestone of graduation. As a result, I have spent more time with my family but also in session with my clients, noticing certain themes that have been popping up all over the place. The biggest theme that has been showing up has been folks feeling like they don’t matter. Using phrases such as “I want people to see me for me”, “I feel invisible”, or “I don’t want to hide any more”. It’s a call for reconnection and authenticity within ourselves and our relationships. Yet, we are feeling like we cannot connect, we cannot be truly seen, loved, and accepted.
As we dive deeper into our histories we start to notice that some of this is coming from our own unhealed attachment wounds. Relational Traumas! And when we dive in further we start to see how these behaviors get passed down generation after generation, from folks who have experienced trauma themselves but were told to “just get over it and move on”. The learned behaviors that kept them protected in unsafe environments (adaptive functioning) that get passed down each generation (even when said generation is not faced with the same threat) is an example of multigenerational trauma that remains unhealed.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to multigenerational trauma is that often times the adaptive behaviors, the ones that kept previous generations alive in hostile and frightening environments, are not understood to be just that. But rather we just pass down certain behavior patterns and interactions because that’s what our parents did, never stopping to explore if this way of being is healthy or unhealthy. If these patterns are a result of untreated trauma symptoms or is it something that truly comes from culture, social norms and customs.
Multigenerational Trauma and Attachment: The Connection
When looking at the impacts of multigenerational trauma we also must look at how this impacts attachment, secure vs insecure attachment. Secure attachment is also known as a safe/secure base. This means that the baby, who is curious about the world around them, can go out and explore what’s around them. They will look back to their caregivers to determine if something is essentially safe. When they feel safe, loved, and nurtured they feel confident and curious, less afraid and anxious. This promotes play, exploration, and curiosity.
On the other hand when you’re looking at insecure attachment the basic hallmark is that the world is scary and unsafe. Exploration is curtailed because the baby experiences fear or anxiety when they are away from their primary caregiver or when they are with their caregiver (if said caregiver is frightening like in the case of physical and sexual abuse).
Most folks who are insecurely attached are not so because of direct abuse and neglect by their parents but really because of unintentional behavioral interactions. These usually revolve around parents who don’t understand the developmental needs of their baby so they get frustrated or try to push them to be more advanced. This can be frightening and anxiety provoking for a baby who is reading your nonverbal cues and receiving the message that what they are doing (and thus they are) not good.
This is also seen with parents who follow the old myth that you shouldn’t hold your babies too often because you will “spoil them”. So there are mothers who don’t hold their babies or believe in letting their babies “cry it out” so they will learn to “self soothe”. Again these folks are not intentionally causing distress in their babies they just don’t understand their developmental needs. When a baby is held, rocked, and spoken to quietly when they are distressed these combined behaviors calm the nervous system down and promotes bonding (connecting) with the release of neurochemicals throughout the body.
This begins during infancy but this positive physical touch continues to be soothing and calming throughout childhood, adolescences, and even into adulthood. We often seek comfort in the arms of a loved one and this often starts from these early experiences.
Finally, when looking at multigenerational trauma and attachment we must also look at people who have historically been oppressed by the larger majority. When generation after generation institutions and folks with power have used that power to negatively impact the lives of others (minorities) then these folks often develop hypervigilance and anxiety. As they parent their children they do so from a place of self protection, often being on guard. They may vacillate between the extremes of emotions in response to daily stressors related to powerlessness and inhibit their babies curiosity and exploration for fear that the majority might harm their child(ren). There’s also an element of indirect messaging to grow up fast, that’s part of this set protective measure. I will dive more into this in part 2 when I dive a little deeper into this topic and also discuss ways you can heal if this is something you’re struggling with.
Multigenerational trauma is something that we are just beginning to really explore and take into consideration when we look at our mental health needs. The link between insecure attachment and multigenerational trauma is one that has not been explored in depth but still impacts most of ourselves. Again it’s no that parents are intentionally out trying to harm their parents but that they often lack the understanding of a child’s developmental needs, they have unhealed attachment needs that are driving their behaviors unconsciously, and/or they are struggling with their own mental health needs (depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc). We should have compassion and patience for ourselves as we try to do the best that we can and increase our awareness and intentionality as we strive to improve.
Does your past continue to haunt you, affecting your self-esteem and relationships? Let’s work together to change this. Schedule your intake session today.
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Until we connect again,