By Ashley Hooker, Crosswalk.com
Do you feel stuck in a cycle of destructive behavior or negative words? Did your parents often warn you of dangers about other people or situations that caused you to carry their fear with you everywhere? Maybe, the idea that people who were different from you were dangerous was pervasive in your home.
If these questions or thoughts speak to you, you may be a witness of or the person experiencing generational trauma.
In recent days, we are seeing the effects of generational trauma on a national and world stage. Our communities are being ravaged by this type of trauma. Individuals are missing out on opportunities and limiting themselves because of trauma experienced in generations past.
In this article, I want to peel back the layers of generational trauma by discussing what it is and how it affects people. We are also going to answer the questions that loom overhead.
Is it biblical? Is there hope for a reversal of generational trauma?
What Is Generational Trauma?
The scientific definition states that generational trauma is maladaptive behaviors and patterns passed down from parents to children and so on. In everyday language, generational trauma is being stuck in time.
An example of this is when a parent experiences childhood abuse. Once they have their own children, they begin abusing them. Abuse is all the parent knew growing up, therefore they pass that hurt and negative behavior to their children.
Children observe and imitate the behavior of their parents. This is the way they learn what behaviors are acceptable in society and their personal relationships. When generational trauma happens, children will begin expressing in words and actions what their parents are doing and continue this into their adult lives.
Essentially, children will become stuck in time.
In my research on this topic, I came across a quote from Dr. Molly Castelloe of the Metropolitan College of New York. She says, “The child speaks what their parents could not. He or she recognizes how their own experience has been authored, how one has been authorized, if unconsciously, to carry their parent’s injury into the future.”
I believe this speaks volumes about what generational trauma is. The childhood of a person is shaped by the past events of a parent’s life. Ultimately, the next generation can suffer consequences from an injury or experience that is not their own.
How is Generational Trauma Transmitted from One Generation to the Another?
We have already touched on this question above, but I feel this question deserves a deeper answer.
Generational trauma is transmitted through communication from one generation to another. One way this happens is through a fear-based survival message. Examples of this are when a mother or father becomes overprotective. They are constantly telling their kids to beware of certain people or never letting them visit a friend’s house because they would be out of their sight.
Families who have experienced intense trauma can pass on trauma to their kids without meaning to or being conscious of it at all. If someone grows up impoverished and in constant survival mode--that's all they know. And that's all they know how to pass on to their children, too.
Another form of transmission is epigenetic. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression. In layman’s terms, it is the investigation into how an individual’s experience might alter the cells and behavior of their children and grandchildren.
The verdict is still out regarding epigenetics and trauma. It is possible that human genes can be altered by trauma, which leads to bad behavior and a cycle of abuse. The reality is we don’t really know at this point--but we know that emotional trauma does express itself in our physical bodies. It would show how deeply trauma can affect us--even affecting the DNA for future generations!
What we do know is any form of trauma can have a profound impact on a person. It can totally change the trajectory of one’s life. Scientists and psychologists agree that trauma is an area of a person’s life that needs to be taken seriously. People need healing and that can only come from addressing the deep and superficial wounds associated with trauma.
My Own Story
Personally, I have experienced generational trauma in my own life. Today I deal with depression and anxiety. This comes from a childhood that included drugs and domestic disputes. I remember the nights I laid in bed trembling because I knew what was going to happen when dad came home.
The trauma I experienced has affected the way I parent my children, interact with my husband, and develop friendships. The history of mental illness in my immediate family has made me wonder if that has any effect on why I have been diagnosed with generalized depression and anxiety disorder.
My mother and father were separated most of my childhood and then divorced when I turned 18. I often say I wished they had divorced much sooner.
In my own marriage, I tend to have mood swings and not communicate in a healthy way. Arguing was what I knew and how I thought relationships worked. The way my dad treated my mom and vice versa was all I knew about how two people who loved each other should treat each other. These are just a few things I have had to overcome and learn how to do differently.
The decisions I’ve made in my life have been directly linked to the trauma of my childhood. Today, I am thankful to have overcome some of it, but still struggle at times.
What we can conclude at this point is that generational trauma is real, and we see it all around us in the 21st century.
Photo Credit: ©FaithLife
Generational Trauma in the 21st Century
The 21st century is an outstanding example of generational trauma. We can label the trauma we face today generational or historical trauma.
The race issues we face go back hundreds of years. Slavery ended in 1865, yet African Americans are still suffering the trauma associated with it. Veterans who have fought for our nation have returned to their homes with a PTSD diagnosis. The trauma of war has affected not only the way these soldiers live their lives but how they treat their families.
The cycle of drug, child, and domestic abuse is prevalent today. Children are stuck in this cycle because it is all they know. They are carrying the trauma of their parents and grandparents. Our children are experiencing consequences of events they have not been party too.
Is Generational Trauma Found in the Bible?
I believe we can give an emphatic yes to this question. We find one of the most quoted verses in scripture in Exodus 34:6-7.
“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding love and faithfulness, maintaining in love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Christians know that because of the sins of the Israelites brought out of Egypt, only generations later were they allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Let’s break this down for better understanding. First, the context of the verse is important to consider. We are at a place in the story of Israel where Moses is carving out the second set of stones for God to write on since he broke the first ones. While Moses was on the mountain, the Israelites built a golden calf and worshipped it.
These two verses in Exodus also allude to God punishing the Israelite children of future generations because of the sinful actions of their parents. God does this by not allowing the people who saw the signs and wonders He gave into the Promised Land.
We know that the Israelites traveled 40 years in the desert. In that time, an entire generation had lived and died. The children of that generation had also heard the stories and experienced the wanderings.
From further reading, we learn how the next generation still had doubts about the Lord.
Does the Bible Convey a Solution to Generational Trauma?
The words of Exodus 34:6-7 are a stark contrast to the words we find in Ezekiel 18:20. This verse says “…The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son…”
Why the contrast? To understand the contrast, we must remember that the words from Exodus portray a picture of God. Those words tell us He is slow to anger, has abounding love and faithfulness, and forgives those who sin against Him. The loving God of Exodus knows that sin is handed down from generation to generation because we see and experience it from our ancestors.
The words of Ezekiel are encouraging to us because they tell us we serve a God who doesn’t want to punish us or generations that follow for the sins of others. He wants to deliver abounding love to us. He wants to bless us richly and abundantly. Ezekiel is reminding us that we can break the cycle of sin in our lives.
Generational trauma is a vicious cycle that can be contributed to one sinful action. John Piper said, “Sin is like a contagious disease. My children don’t suffer because I have it. They catch it from me and then suffer because they have.” That one sinful action can explode and gain control in our lives before we realize it.
Satan is cunning as we saw in the Garden of Eden.
We read the solution given by the Scriptures in Colossians 1:13-14: "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."
God's immense love, and Jesus' ultimate sacrifice, paved the way to freeing us from the darkness.
The path to obtaining the solution to your specific healing looks different for every individual. For me, I have spent years praying and trying to learn from my mistakes. Only recently did I realize I had subconsciously been working on changing my behaviors with the help of God.
Christian counseling and therapists can also give immense support and guidance in your healing process. They will listen to your concerns and feelings and then help you to re-parent yourself. God will put the people and resources in your life to help you heal from past trauma.
Once we turn to Christ, we experience hope and peace beyond all understanding. This doesn’t mean that all issues associated with generational trauma will cease to exist. What it means is that when Satan tries to persuade you and lead you down a path of sin, you have God on your side to help you and keep you from all harm.
Generational trauma is a real issue in our country and around the world. People are truly suffering due to this phenomenon. Satan is using this as a tool in his belt, but believers have the ultimate tool to fight the battle and win the race.
Christ gives us a new slate each day. He allows us to honor our history without getting stuck in it. We may no longer view ourselves as victims, but as survivors. Survivors, by the grace of God.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/asiseeit
Ashley Hooker is a freelance writer who spends her time homeschooling her two children, ministering alongside her husband as he pastors a rural church in West Virginia, and writing about her faith. Currently, she is a contributing author for Journey Christian magazine. She has taken part in mission trips with the NC Baptist Men during the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey in Mississippi and Texas. In her local church, she has served on various committees focusing in the area of evangelism along with traveling to West Virginia and Vermont to share the Gospel. Her dream is to spend her time writing and sharing the love of Christ with all she meets.