Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Psych Central published my latest article on trauma and it's one you don't want to miss! Through my work with children coping with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) the historical trajectory became very clear to me. Often childhood trauma doesn't start with the child who was traumatized, but it starts with the parents and grandparents of that child who were overwhelmed by adversity and never received help. Unprocessed emotional trauma is likely to be passed on in some capacity to at least the next three generations. This is why it is crucial we bring attention to helping parents and grandparents process their trauma so that we can stop the cycle from repeating itself.
In my article, Stopping the Cycle of Transgenerational Trauma, I discuss WHY and HOW we can put the brakes on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), by focusing on mental health for children, AND ALSO their parents.
Here is how the cycle looks from a 50 foot view: An adult that experienced childhood trauma and has symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might go unnoticed by caregivers, teachers, and even social workers. As a child, their behavior might have been attributed to lack of motivation, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, or other behavioral problems. But trauma is much more than behavior. Trauma rewires the neural pathways in our brains and sets the brain on high alert for threats in the environment. This is called "neuroception" a term coined by trauma expert Steven Porges.
In the case of children who experience abuse and neglect the behavior is the symptom of broken trust and a nervous system on high alert for danger. At some point, typically during puberty or young adulthood, the impact of childhood trauma to the brain and nervous system begin to resurface but often go untreated or unprocessed due to lack of access to mental health care. When this child reaches adulthood, we now have adults trying to raise children with unprocessed trauma, maladaptive parenting skills and difficulty regulating their emotions. This is not the parents fault. Without learning emotional regulation from your own parent, a child is left without the mirror she needs to integrate and regulate her emotional life. Without the healthy experiences and attachment with her parent, this adult doesn't even know how to be a good parent to her new child. This is how the cycle repeats.
The greatest support one can provide to a child exposed to trauma is an emotionally intelligent caregiver.
When parents are living with unprocessed trauma, their children's behavior can trigger unhealthy coping skills within themselves - like frequent conflict, lack of attachment, poor emotional regulation, impulsive decision making, drug abuse, and neglect. In addition to this, if a parent was traumatized at say, age five, when his/her child turns five the traumatic memories can bubble up to a level of consciousness in the parent making it difficult to provide quality care to her children.
New research is uncovering that trauma is passed down from generation to generation through not only experiences, but also biology. This research into the biology of trauma is now discovering how psychological trauma is passed down epigenetically (through our genes!) to our children.
To learn what we can do to help stop the cycle of trauma, read the full article HERE.
If you are looking for practical tools to improve the psychological health of your family, please join my new Facebook group, Emotiminds, HERE. Each week I will share therapeutic activities and resources to help your family develop and maintain mental health skills. Think of it as a classroom for you and your children's emotional well-being. Let's get out of survival mode and start thriving together!
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Beth Tyson, MA, is a psychotherapist, children’s book author, and trauma-responsive care expert. She has several years of experience as a clinician and a co-instructor in the graduate program for counseling psychology at Eastern University.
Beth’s therapeutic children’s book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is about a young koala who is suddenly raised by his grandma when his parents cannot keep him safe. Her book is a tool for parents and professionals to help children cope with BIG emotions following childhood trauma and loss.