New York City, NY — I come from a family of strong women. Our lineage runs deep with stubbornness, bravery, humility, and generosity. We pride ourselves on our ability to make others feel comforted and safe and how we stand up for things that matter to us. My grandmother imbued these traits in my mother and aunt, and my mother and aunt did the same for me and my cousin. We have grown up surrounded by female role models who have put everything they have into this family. Although, some of the things they passed on aren’t the traits they worked so hard on modeling, they are the compounded responses to various traumas and expectations passed from generation to generation.
Intergenerational trauma is essentially a ripple effect of traumas (or coping mechanisms due to traumas) being passed on through a family. We often think of it in the context of things like abuse, for example how a young boy who grows up with an abusive father is more likely to abuse his future spouse. Or, we think of it concerning large-scale phenomena, like the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors having adverse health effects. However, as intergenerational trauma is being more widely researched and openly spoken about, we have been able to see it more commonly embedded in family structures.
At the end of 2021, my family and I watched “Encanto” for the first time. My maternal grandparents, mom, aunt, cousin and I all sat in my grandparents’ living room and experienced what I think is one of the best movies of the last few years. As we watched the beautiful story of Mirabel and her family learning how to overcome the unfair pressure placed on them by their Abuela, the two younger generations of my family cried. We all had the same visceral reaction to the song “Surface Pressure” and the lyric “I'm pretty sure I'm worthless if I can't be of service.”
After the movie ended, we expressed our enjoyment and feelings, though I couldn’t help but notice that my grandparents didn’t get the point of the movie. They didn’t understand why Mirabel, Isabella and Luisa felt that they had so many expectations. Later that evening it hit me - they were Abuela.
I can’t blame them.
They come from a generation where children only spoke when they were spoken to and had no option but to do what was expected. I’m sure that they felt the need to rebel and be better than their own parents (as everyone thinks they will be) and so they told their children they could do anything and be anyone they wanted to be so long as it was still within their expectations. My mother grew up knowing she was expansive, but only so much. So, she attempted to be a better parent than her parents. She raised me to believe I could do anything and be anyone - no limits. But, when I was told that I could do anything, I heard I have to do everything. This mindset wasn’t just something I thought up one day, it had been unknowingly crafted and molded over generations.
I won’t get into the fine print of our family’s traumas and tribulations, but there is a clear path of how each generation passed their experiences onto their children in potentially damaging ways. This is more common than I think we have been acknowledging. Trauma compounds and pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it disappear (unfortunately).
So, what can we do about this?
Over the last few years, I have become more interested in the concept of intergenerational trauma and I have begun to dissect it in my own family. I have had open and honest conversations with my mother about her childhood, her relationship with her mother, and her struggles with her mental health. We have had some hard conversations about our relationship and how I have felt about things she said or did or ways I felt I had to act. And, we have had some productive conversations about why those things were said, done, and felt, and how we can move forward and both learn. We have cried and hugged and yelled and laughed through hours of this mutual learning and collective healing.
That type of raw communication is what I think has the capability to dismantle generational trauma in our own families. Well, that and therapy. Therapy is really important too.
Gen Z has really been on their therapy grind and it seems to be working. Our generation talks so openly about our mental health, our traumas and our therapeutic journeys. We are breaking down the walls of generational trauma brick-by-brick. It is not easy work, but we are trying and we have the power to help other generations do the same.
So, have tough conversations with your parents and your grandparents. Talk to your siblings and cousins to see what their perspectives are. Allow yourself to be open to not getting the answers you may want. Progress is not always linear, healing doesn’t have to be either. As Isabella says in “Encanto”, “I’m tired of perfect, I want real.”
Here is a list of potential conversation starters (and enders) to bring up these topics in your family.
- Ask your parents what they liked and disliked about how their parents raised them.
- Pay attention to patterns that you see in your family and discuss them with a relative of a similar age (or the same generation as you).
- If you feel comfortable and safe doing so, tell your parent(s) about a time where they hurt your feelings or made you feel a certain way. Ask them if they ever had an experience where their parents made them feel that same feeling.
- Thank your family members for listening and allowing this conversation. Tell them how much you appreciate the time and emotional energy it may have taken. Allow there to be big feelings at this point from both sides.
- If you feel close enough, hug or hold hands or sit with each other in silence as you process and absorb.
Remember that the main takeaway from any conversations you may have about this (especially when they feel really hard) is that you are opening space for mutual growth. At the end of the day, you love each other, even when things are tough.
Hayden Garniewicz (she/her) is currently based in New York City and attending NYU for a Master's degree in Social Work with a projected graduation date in Spring of 2024. She graduated from Cornell University in 2022 with a BA in Sociology. She covers stories on mental health. You can find her on Instagram @haydenelizabeth_ and Twitter @haydenbug_ .
Edited by NaTyshca Pickett