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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

 

Babies and Someone Else

Babies need loving, responsive adults to make them whole. This is best illustrated by watching the still face study, which was created by Ed Tronick, a developmental psychologist. This version is done with dads (a great reminder that it’s parents — not just moms – who matter to babies). (You can see a version with older kids here.)

When the baby becomes upset, that’s dysregulation. When parents tune back in, the babies are able to regulate. Babies (and toddlers and children) learn to regulate on their own over time but only with our help.

Now before you start feeling bad about the times you’re on your phone or reading a book or cooking a dinner and your baby is melting down, the important thing is the reconnection. You step away, you come back. They fall apart, you help them come back together. Some frustration is fine because in that frustration are important lessons about trust. Dad comes back. Mom returns. You are not alone. (The second video I linked explains this more.)

Eventually baby’s tolerance increases. As children get older they need less reflection from us and they are able to carry that sense of being seen within themselves. But there will be times when they will need our help even when they’re great big kids. After all, we adults sometimes need someone to hold our hands, too, so we won’t fall to pieces.

“There’s no such thing as an infant,” wrote D. W. Winnicott, famed British child psychiatrist. “If you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for a baby.”

A baby alone is a baby unfinished.

Now imagine what happens if a baby lives alone in dysregulation for a long time or very often. Imagine if a baby does not have someone to complete them. This is what happens to children who are neglected or institutionalized. They don’t learn to self regulate; they’ve never been given the tools to do it. As you can see from the video, some babies shut down and others fall apart. This is where they will go as they get older even if they have help later. Those early experiences leave deep impressions on young hearts and minds.

Now think of yourself. Some adults watch the still face videos and they have a visceral reaction. Tears come to their eyes. They become upset for the seemingly abandoned infant. Perhaps it reminds us of being left to our own dysregulation too often. Perhaps it reminds us of early experiences of fear and loneliness.

Parenting our children can bring up some of these deep seated losses. Sometimes giving to our children what we didn’t have is healing and sometimes it can bring us grief we don’t understand and don’t know how to manage.

So what do we need then? Where can we find connection to regulate? Perhaps it’s from our partner. Perhaps it’s through meditation to connect us to our feelings so we can attend to them. And perhaps it’s in the office of a trusted counselor.

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