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The Impact of Trauma on Family Culture

as a man i carry this anger  it is
untraceable yet i know my father taught it to me
with his blood with his stories  he loved
all of us enough to teach us not to trust
even so  his eyes have in them the dark well of mercy
this vine of flower is watered by fire and it is my life

~ Aaron A. Abeyta, from Why We Don’t Mention My Great-Grandfather’s Name

So far we’ve been talking about the ways that family members may experience trauma differently. This is to explain why your aunt and uncle might not agree with your dad about what went on when they were kids. And to help us understand why your mom might have handled things pretty well while her brother or sister have struggled. But what about those of us who grow up in traumatized families? How does this impact the way we experience the world?

There are, of course, different kinds of trauma. In generally healthy systems, a single traumatic event can be startling, even earth shattering, but if the system is resilient — if the connections are good, if the general outlook is positive, if there is open acceptance of feelings — the system will recover. But if the system is continuously traumatized, it will shape itself to the trauma. This is true for individuals, too.

Let’s look at the Youngs again.

Extreme poverty is traumatizing and the Young family was extremely poor even before their father died. From what we can tell, the family was generationally poor, which means the parents came to their relationship already stressed and already carrying some culture of trauma. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have done a good job (I want to be very clear that poor parents are not automatically inadequate parents) but it does mean that the loss of one of the main breadwinners taxed what was already an overtaxed system. Losing a parent is always traumatic but remember, in a resilient system people will have a tough time but they will heal. The Young system didn’t have room for resiliency.

So the father dies and the family moves, which is another stress, and they children (who likely were already working in the fields) move to the mill. Eddie Lou told her children that the area they moved to wasn’t very safe. “She talked about kids carrying knives and that kind of thing,” reports her son, Earl Parker. The mills, too, were unsafe. That was trauma.

Finally the biggest trauma of all, the disruption of the family. The Youngs lost more than half their children to the orphanage.

We know that these events impacted each Young differently but we can see that in each of their families, the legacy of this trauma was passed on in different ways. Traumatized families who have not dealt with the trauma have cultures that reflect these traits, which are often intertwined and feed each other:

  • Secrecy
  • Dysregulation
  • Isolation
  • Scarcity
  • Normalization
  • Loyalty

Secrecy

Traumatized families keep secrets from outside but from each other, too. Several of the descendants Manning interviewed had only a vague idea of what happened to their parents and grandparents. Seaborn Young‘s granddaughter Claudie Suggs echoes many of the interviewees.

“We didn’t know anything about my grandfather’s childhood,” she says. “It will be interesting now to know how he grew up, and learn about his family and everything.”

Secrecy comes from the shame surrounding the traumatic events but it can also be a coping mechanism. Many people deal with trauma by not dealing with it. They change the subject or insist that those things are in the past and don’t need to be discussed. Family members who push for answers may be ostracized or otherwise punished for breaking the family code of secrecy.

Dysregulation

People who have lived through unaddressed trauma are dysregulated especially if those traumatic events happened in their childhood. We’ve discussed how trauma actually changes developing brains and if that child does not receive trauma-informed support they will grow to be a dysregulated adult. Dysregulation looks like anger, irritability, fear, depression and anxiety.

Here is a very simplistic example of the way families pass on dysregulation. If a parent always startles when someone slams the door (because door slamming preceded a beating when they were a child) then their children will learn to startle when a door slams. The parent may not even realize they startle because the reaction is so ingrained in but they will pass it on to their children.

People who are continuously dysregulated may turn to alcohol or drugs or work or sex to self-medicate and this further traumatizes the family.

Isolation

Many traumatized families isolate themselves because of shame or because of reasonable fear of what might happen if people learn about what’s really going on. Looking at the Youngs again, there are some children and grandchildren who were told that Catherine Young was forced to take her children to the orphanage when other people in their community became concerned about them. Sometimes it makes sense to distrust people outside of the family.

Traumatized families also become isolated because people in the community may shun them. Outsiders may blame family members for their trauma or feel concerned about their own family’s safety if they should become involved. Or there may be racism, xenophobia, classism or other prejudice at play.

Scarcity

In traumatized families there isn’t enough of something — money, time, safety, attention, love — and they pass that sense of scarcity on. It’s like those grandparents who saved every rubber band because they grew up in the depression. To grow up with lack is to grow up afraid and sometimes suspicious. Are there not enough rubber bands in the world? Or are there just not enough rubber bands for me?

The scarcity in traumatized families shows up in arguments when people are fighting about mundane things like who’s hosting for the holidays and who’s going to inherit grandpa’s cuff links. It’s not about holidays or cuff links, it’s about there not being enough to go around. In healthy families this kind of conflict is low grade; in traumatized families it can destroy entire relationships.

Normalization

In the This American Life episode Duty Calls younger brother David, who grew up in an alcoholic family beset by violence, makes the point that the people who were a part of his life helped perpetuate the dysfunctional family culture:

At that age when you’re going through all that you know it’s not right so you try to act like your life isn’t bad. You try to act like your life is normal. You hide that away from the rest of the world. I was scared to have friends of mine over to sleep at the house because the average kid is going to be freaked out. … The kids who do end up coming over and become regulars, they’re the ones who are just as f*cked up as you.

This normalization can make it incredibly hard for other family members to break out for two reasons. The first is that we cannot become the things we cannot imagine. Remember that one of the traits of resiliency is initiative. In order to initiate change, we have to believe that things can change. We have to see another way to be. When I talk to individuals who have successfully broken away from the traumatized norms in their family, they talk about how they knew things could be different from visiting other families or reading books or watching television shows and realizing that not everyone lived that way.

The second way that normalization keeps families trapped is that to reject the family culture is in some way to reject the family. Which leads us to the next lesson learned.

Loyalty

In traumatized families all of these cultural lessons get meshed into codependency masked as loyalty. In healthy families, loyalty is earned through care and attention. In traumatized families, loyalty is coerced. Families shaped by trauma tend to be all or nothing; you are either inside the circle or out. If you are unmasking or telling family secrets, that is a betrayal. If you are looking outside the family for support or information, that is betrayal. If you are speaking out against ingrained family behaviors, that is betrayal.

In Mary’s family, we can see this play out in the way that her daughters won’t hear her speak against her mother. It is a trauma that perpetuates itself. Catherine’s act is the central trauma on which Mary focuses her life but speaking out against that trauma goes against the family code of loyalty, learned from Mary herself. (Remember, she’s the one who keeps the family together as a reaction to her mother’s need to send her children away.)

Breaking away from the culture of trauma often means losing access to the family itself. The cost of interrupting the cycle is very high.


I’ve enjoyed writing about the Young family and appreciate you coming along with me. I’ve touched very lightly on some very big topics so if there are questions or thoughts you have, feel free to share them in the comments or contact me. I will answer on blog if I can (I’ll keep your questions or thoughts anonymous and won’t quote anything personal if you share something). Thank you for reading!

Previously

 

Bounded Compassion with Family

Bounded Compassion with FamilyThe other day I talked to Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating and Body of Truth. She’s working on another book project about estrangement and reconciliation. Here was her call for participation on Facebook:

For my next book, I’m looking to talk with people who have been estranged from family members or are currently estranged. The book is about family estrangements and reconciliations. Please pass the word! Message me for more info.

(If you would like to be interviewed by her, you can contact her via her website.) It was timely for me because I’d been thinking about my last blog post in the context of support clients in setting compassionate boundaries with family, which is oh so much harder than setting them with friends.

We tend to give our family a lot more leeway because, well, because they’re family and we privilege those ties above all others. We have a lot of cultural stories about the importance of family: Family is where you’re supposed to find unconditional love and acceptance. Family is where you’re supposed to find people who know you best and love you anyway. Family is meant to be the people who are always rooting for you.

That’s the ideal but most of us have to make compromises in our expectations.

All of us need to grow up and step away from our families in practical ways (by moving out) and in emotional ways (by choosing our own values and goals). In healthy families this may be painful but it’s supported. Healthy families want you to be your best self — even when it doesn’t jive with their own idea of best self-ness. Healthy families may grumble about the things you do differently (“But we always have turkey on Thanksgiving!”) but will accept your choice anyway (“Oh well, pass the tofurkey. I’m game to try it!”).

In unhealthy families the adult child’s growth and move away from their family of origin is seen as threatening. If the adult child is serving toforkey, the threatened parent might project a whole lot of critical meaning on it. “Are you saying I’m an unhealthy cook?” “Are you saying you’re too good for your grandmother’s roast turkey recipe?” And because it’s family, it’s somehow OK to say that out loud. A parent who would never complain at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner table might think nothing of criticizing their adult child.

The adult child, who might have few issues with setting boundaries with such a rude friend, is stuck wondering what to do. They might start an argument. They might internalize the criticism and feel bad about themselves (“Maybe I am a big snob, maybe I am unreasonable, maybe my values are dumb”). They might avoid the discussion and be resigned to having a lousy Thanksgiving every year.

Many adult children twist themselves into knots to try to accommodate the dysfunctional parents’ demands and struggle with anxiety and depression as a result. It’s hard to love yourself when the person who’s supposed to love you best is so critical (or cruel).

When clients come to my office with dilemmas like this and ask me what to do, I say, “What do you want to do?” Because we can’t control how our family reacts to our decisions but we can control our decisions. The long hard work of healing from harsh parents starts with figuring out what we want separate from our unrealistic expectations. We can bring our best selves to our decision-making and then we can let go of the outcome.

Letting go of the outcome starts with confronting and grieving the ideal we’ve been hoping for. In the video below (go ahead and scroll down to watch if you have 15ish minutes), brother Phil has a wonderful, full and accomplished life away from his family. He’s an award-winning journalist with best-selling books and  big deal magazine covers but his family has nothing but criticism because his accomplishments separate him from them. Instead of celebrating with him they ignore him, tell him he doesn’t look good, and advise him to consider a career change. If Phil has been holding on to hope that winning the Nobel prize is finally going to get him the love and acceptance he craves, he’s going to leave the house feeling pretty low. But if he’s worked to recognize family patterns and realized that his family’s reaction is theirs, he may still grieve that his family is not supportive but he won’t internalize their negativity towards his accomplishments.

Instead of thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me that my mom doesn’t love me like I want her to?” He can think, “My mom is incapable of loving me the way I want her to, this is not my fault and I get to choose how much time I spend with her.”

Sometimes in our work together, when we start talking about families of origin like this, clients will feel like they’re betraying their parents or siblings by being critical so please understand that this is not about bad mouthing our relatives. I believe both that most of us are doing the absolutely best we can (compassion) and that good intentions don’t negate toxicity.

Our families may love us the only way they know how, but that doesn’t mean that we are required to ignore the hurt they cause us.

For some people setting boundaries means estrangement. It means visiting less or not visiting at all. It means Thanksgiving at the vegetarian co-op instead of with our family. It means making decisions designed to support your own needs instead of trying to do things to make other people happy.

 

 

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