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News & Views

Healing Intergenerational Trauma by Sabrina Edwards

Updated: 5 days ago

Chapel member Sabrina Edwards offered this address at a Sunday service in April. You can watch the full service on the Chapel's YouTube channel.

When I first became a parent, I remember thinking about all the things I wanted to pass down to my children, rather than the things I didn’t. Along the way I have had to learn how to not pass on my issues, problems, anxieties and neuroses that I learnt from my own parents. I don’t always succeed and have made lots of mistakes already, with many more on the way, I’m sure! However not everyone wants to accept that trauma can be transmitted across generations, originating with long-dead relatives and passed down to future great-grandchildren. Many of us are happy to accept the idea that ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ in jest, without reflecting on whether we can do anything about that. I often think about my parents and their ancestors, and where their patterns of behaviour may have stemmed from.

When I started my doctoral degree nearly three years ago, I focused most of my research on how school leaders approach anti racism in their schools. As part of this I have been interested in what motivates individuals to begin their ‘anti-racist journey’. I have also been very interested in the narrative of representation being a way to fix all -isms.

What I have found is that having diversity and representation alone is merely a tick box exercise. We already do have racialised people in positions of power but many of them do not demonstrate a true commitment to equity or dismantling whiteness. In my view, having a commitment to equity is more important and this can be shown by people from any background.

However, my research has also led me down another path. Why is racism still so pervasive in our society? We know that race was invented to dehumanise racialised people whilst simultaneously normalising the concept of white superiority. We know that using the idea of race justified transatlantic chattel slavery, white domination and the colonisation of countries around the world.

A question I have been trying to answer is: why do some people find it so difficult to engage with the idea of anti-racism? Generations of white people, including descendants of the enslavers and those who gained financially, have been told explicitly and implicitly that they are ‘better’, more ‘civilised’ and more deserving. Racialised people subscribe to this notion in lots of ways too. More recent narratives, including the war on wokeness, helps to shut conversations down, ensuring that we remain stagnant. Why do authors even need to write books like ‘I’m no longer talking to white people about race’? Why is there such denial that a

problem exists? The concept of intergenerational trauma begins to answer some of these questions.

The term ‘intergenerational trauma’ originates from studies within communities that have suffered a collective historical trauma. I have already given the example of one group of people who have suffered the collective trauma of chattel slavery, but there is also a growing body of research on survivors of the Holocaust and indigenous peoples who have survived colonisation.

Professor Ed Tronick, who is a developmental and clinical psychologist, says that it’s not the traumatic experience that is passed on, it’s the anxiety and world view of the survivors. This goes some way in explaining why we often pass on our parent’s patterns of behaviour, sometimes without even realising. But their patterns of behaviour might have come from their parents, or grandparents, or their grandparents, who may have suffered a collective historical trauma or been part of the group responsible for the oppression.

Dr Joy De Gruy is an internationally renowned researcher and educator whose research focuses on the intersection of racism, trauma, violence and American chattel slavery. She describes a condition that she has named Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) that she says has developed as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery, followed by institutionalised racism which continues to perpetuate the injury. She says that many of those who have PTSS have developed both positive and negative adaptive behaviours that allowed them to survive and often even thrive. Some of the key negative patterns of behaviour that reflect PTSS include having a distorted self-concept, internalised racism, insufficient development of what Dr. DeGruy refers to as primary esteem, along with feelings of hopelessness, depression and a general self-destructive outlook. Some of these negative patterns of behaviour seem all too familiar to me and many other people I know whose ancestors suffered the same historical trauma.

Professor Tronick found that many Holocaust survivors developed a view that the world is a dangerous place where terrible things can happen anytime, and their children intuitively sensed this fear and adapt to these cues. Researchers have investigated whether Holocaust survivors and their children showed changes to what are known as “epigenetic markers,” chemical tags that attach to DNA and can switch genes on or off, which in turn can influence inherited traits or diseases.

Studies conducted by Dr Rachel Yehuda compared blood samples of people who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust with those of Jews living outside Europe during the war. They found that mothers exposed to the Holocaust showed changes in the activity of a DNA segment involved in regulating the stress response. Interestingly, their children, who were not directly exposed, also showed these changes. The implications of this research are far from conclusive but suggest that the environmental wounds inflicted on one generation may be transmitted to the next.

The research on intergenerational trauma quite rightly focuses on the ancestors of those who suffered the traumatic experience. However, in my view the descendants of those who have oppressed others or been in an unearned position of power due to the oppression, also need to heal. They will have had very damaging explicit and implicit messaging about oppressed groups of people that have been passed through generations over time, affecting their views about their inherent worth and value.

Intergenerational trauma affects the way we see the world, ourselves and each other but the good news is that just as trauma can be passed through generations, so can resilience. But tapping into that resilience often requires a deeper understanding of the original source of the trauma and how it has been transmitted through families and society. This is where the process of healing can begin. We may not be able to rewrite our genes or change our past, but future healing is possible. There are healthier patterns to emulate and multiple pathways toward healing to take.

However, regardless of the pathway, the first step is always building awareness. Unpacking and understanding the various historical traumas that have affected our daily lives is so important. For example, we must all build a genuine awareness of how white supremacy and white domination works in society and how it affects the lens through which we see the world. Once we, as individuals and communities, can name what has happened and acknowledge the impact of the trauma-constructed patterns, then we can set about finding new meaning.

We need to find ways to develop our awareness of our own thought processes, values and the words we choose to use. If we know where they have come from, we can then decide whether they will serve to replace maladaptive behaviours or perpetuate them. In Dr De Gruy’s book, she explores ways to promote and sustain healing. Learning and unlearning are keys parts in the process.

We should seek to understand the stories we might have been taught as children, and reframe those that have caused us damage and could cause further damage if we were to continue believing them or telling them to others. Various mind-body therapies, and restorative practices such as meditation, mindfulness and self-care practices can all support the healing process. Some find that memoir writing helps to reconstruct harmful narratives because it stops the experience of a trauma from repeating itself, instead repairing it through engaging with and analysing the events of the past.

Others prefer to directly address the sources of trauma through activism and advocacy which can be powerful tools for overcoming the grip and breaking the cycle of gun violence or racism, for example.

Earlier, I sung one of my favourite songs by the singer songwriter, India Arie. The lyrics: ‘I am not the things my family did, I am not the voices in my head, I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside, I am light’ have always spoken to me deeply. In one of her online ‘songversations’, which I highly recommend, she explains that when she says light, she means the opposite of heavy. Her lyrics remind me of how I can address my own personal response to trauma and begin to heal, become ‘lighter’ and break the cycle.

But true healing must come through being intentional in developing our awareness, understanding, and undoing of harmful practices and patterns of behaviour. Of course, doing this as individuals is important but doing this as a community is even more powerful. We might not welcome this process with open arms, knowing that we will have to sit in our discomfort. After all, it will involve having open and honest conversations with ourselves and maybe even with our families about trauma that has been inflicted from generation to generation. We may find things out about our ancestors that are upsetting to hear.

However, like the river in poem 'Fear' we heard earlier, and like Ami discovered in our story earlier, transforming our fears into courage, embracing transformation and becoming part of something more significant than ourselves is what we need for beautiful, brilliant things to happen. And we really need more beautiful, brilliant things to happen to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.


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