We adopt a lot of behaviors from our family. We might have the same mannerisms as our mother or the same pet peeves as our father. We might have detailed inside jokes with our siblings and be able to finish each other’s sentences. We share many of the same values and worldviews, and oftentimes embrace some of the same preferences. While we are not identical to our family members, they provide the foundation for the person we will become.

Just as we inherit many of the good or benign qualities of our families, we also pick up some of the negative aspects. Sure, we are bound to imitate some of the idiosyncrasies that we witnessed while we were growing up or struggle with the bad habits we were exposed to. That’s quite normal. Where it gets complicated is when intergenerational trauma is involved.

From One Generation to the Next

Intergenerational trauma is a term that describes the idea that a traumatic event that occurred to a member of one generation can have lasting effects on the next generation. That traumatic event itself is obviously not passed down, but the individual’s response to that event can influence those to come.

Another key concept related to intergenerational trauma is the connection between adverse childhood experiences and poor outcomes across generations. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) describe traumatic or deeply stressful events and environments a child endured prior to turning 18. These events could take the form of experiencing abuse or neglect, witnessing domestic violence, living with someone who had mental illness or substance use disorder, or having a family member incarcerated. The more events that a child experiences, the higher their ACE score. This score is used to assess risk for a variety of negative health, psychological, and social outcomes, such as developing substance use disorder or a mental illness, struggling with chronic diseases like diabetes or cancer, suffering from limited career and education opportunities, experiencing teenage pregnancy, and contracting illnesses like HIV. The higher the ACE score, the more likely a person is to struggle with these issues later in life.

How Is Intergenerational Trauma Passed Down?

Intergenerational trauma is cyclical, and there are some elements of the ACEs theory that tie into that. For example, if your mother struggled with substance abuse and you witnessed that in your household while you were growing up, that contributes to your ACE score. Experiencing that then puts you at an increased risk of developing substance use disorder as well. Hypothetically, if you were to go on to have children and simultaneously struggle with substance abuse, that would put your children at increased risk as well.

Just like dominoes, substance abuse can travel from generation to generation, creating an ever-tightening loop. Nobody in this situation is choosing to participate in this destructive cycle; rather, they are born into it. They are not bad people who are suffering and wish the same for their children and grandchildren; instead, they are wrapped up in the midst of something that came before them and is on the trajectory to continue after them. For people in this situation, where they have witnessed many people in their life grapple with addiction and they themselves struggle with it as well, it can feel like there is no way out. It might feel like this is their fate and they have no say in it.

Breaking the Cycle

If you are finding that this description resonates with you because you see it in your own family, you are not alone. Luckily, it does not have to be this way. As hard as it may be to recognize it, you do have a choice. The cycle will only continue if it is allowed to.

The first step to breaking the cycle is acknowledging that there is a problem. In many cases where substance abuse transcends generations and seems to be just a reality, it may be something that is accepted as normal. This allows for it to continue to fester and grow without being challenged. Having the courage to identify the issue not just as something that has always been and will always be can empower you in your journey toward a better future for yourself and those who will come after you.

Another step to disrupting the pattern is seeking treatment. When substance abuse is considered to be normal and left unchallenged, it may be less likely for individuals to seek treatment. They might think that there is nothing wrong and they don’t need help, or they may fear that it will not help them steer from the present course that was preset for them by intergenerational trauma.

When you engage in treatment, you are actively rewriting the narrative of your life by taking away the power that drugs and alcohol have on you. You are cutting down to the core of your addiction and developing coping mechanisms to help you fight urges and maintain recovery. Finding a treatment provider that offers a family recovery program can also assist you in addressing these issues with your family and supporting one another through the uncomfortable, but necessary, process of choosing the future over the past. Putting in the work to control your addiction keeps it from burning through the generations like wildfire, and it can make you the person who put their foot down to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

Whether you are the first person in your family to experience substance use disorder or it has been an established trend throughout the generations, you are not forced to just accept it. You can get help and lead the life you want without the burden of substance abuse. Help is available, and finding the right treatment provider can set you on the right path in your treatment journey. At Family-Centered Services, we recognize the complex effects that addiction has on the family, especially when multiple people are struggling with it. That is why we prioritize comprehensive care that addresses each person’s needs to repair the family unit. We offer individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, intervention preparation and education services, case management, and sober monitoring to address the many facets of addiction recovery. Learn more about how we can work together at (509) 991-5822.