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, such as a car accident, or complex trauma, such as ongoing child abuse or transgenerational trauma. In the case of transgenerational trauma, trauma (adaptations) are passed between generations, which actually changes a persons DNA. Epigenetics is this process-the process by which 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. These changes show up in our body sensations, the changes in our stress response systems, and thus impact our behaviors and our cognitions. Not only our we looking at how our neurobiology changes but how these changes occur across families and thus how it impacts 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 for folks is feeling like they don’t matter. They use phrases such as “I want people to see me for me”, “I feel invisible”, or “I don’t want to hide any more”. These statements are calls 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”. I’ve even heard people more recently say “I don’t want to be a victim”.
They’ve 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 transgenerational trauma that remains unhealed.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to transgenerational 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/or customs.
Moreover when we are no longer in that place of hostility and threat or if we have come into contact with more safe places, then those trauma adaptions that our parents/caregivers parent and caretake from leave us feeling unloved and disconnected. Unnutured, unseen, and unheard.
Transgenerational Trauma and Attachment: The Connection
When looking at the impacts of transgenerational 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 all around them. They will look back to their parents/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. When they become stressed or frightened they can then turn to that secure base for that feeling of safety and security. The secure adult validates and comforts the baby and once settled the baby goes back out to explore.
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). They don’t seek reassurance from their parent/caregiver because they have an experience with said parent(s)/caregiver(s) in which they have been constantly unavailable to meet the child’s individual needs. (I want to make a note here that when we talk attachment this is from the child’s perspective not the parent. The baby/toddler/child is the one who experiences and internalizes the messaging about their place in family and the world through these parent/caregiver interactions)
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 and unique needs of their baby. They can be anxious parents who have a lot of anxieties about the world and thus live in ways that signal to the child that their surroundings are unsafe. Moreover when they are in this state of feeling unsafe they may have a hard time regulating themselves so now you have two dysregulated individuals feeding off of each other.
Other parents/caregivers may seek to get their own need for love and nurturance thought their child and violate their emotional and physical boundaries (not in a sexual way but in a way of not recognizing a baby disengagement cues and thus they overstimulate the child). An example of this is a parent who overshares or relies on their child for emotional connection, thus parentifying their child, rather than going to another adult or partner to get their needs met. In both examples the parent/caregiver is not coregulating with their baby so their stress response system can be regulated (return to baseline) but rather they promote continued distress in the child which raises the stress response level. Babies will move out of a mobilizing response of flight or fight into freeze/dissociation with repeated interactions like this because it overwhelms them developmentally.
Another common manner in which insecure attachment between parent/caregiver can be facilitated is also seen with folks 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 and unique needs. Some babies have a more flexible neurobiology and can self soothe a little even in the early months of their lives while others need a lot more time before they can self soothe. You cannot use blanket statements for all babies, even if those babies have the same biological parents. Each baby is different and unique, with their own unique neurobiology that you must take the time to get to know and support.
Remember 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 is how we experience love and nurturance. When we cry out in distress and someone sees that and attempts to assuage our distress we are seen and heard. We learn that we matter and our needs matter. This all comes from those early care taking actions that are paired together with out basic needs getting met.
Finally, when looking at transgenerational 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). These fears are not unfounded ie Trayvon Martin. There is also an element of indirect messaging to grow up fast, that is part of this type of 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 are struggling with.
Transgenerational 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 us. Again it’s not that parents/caregivers are intentionally trying to harm their children but that they often lack the understanding of a child’s developmental and unique 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 as parents/caregivers.