In episode 323, I received a question from a listener looking for advice on healing generational trauma while protecting their own mental health. In this post, I dive into more detail and offer my thoughts on how best to move forward.
I love your podcast so much and the range of topics you talk about but I was wondering if you could give some advice on trying to heal generational trauma. I am 18 and I’ve had a very hard childhood and as I’ve gotten older I started to see resemblances of the situation I’m in with the ones they were in. How can I set boundaries when my parents haven’t begun their healing process? How can I explain to them that I shouldn’t be the parent when it comes to being there for one another? How can I help them heal while not risking my mental health? Thank you so much.
This is a really great question. I think it’s strong and admirable that you are thinking about this. It is tooooouuugh. In therapy I sometimes describe generational trauma in a sort of top-down way. Like the generations above you, when they don’t work on their issues and do the hard work of healing, the weight is passed down to the next generation. So, as you work on your own issues, you are also carrying the weight of those above you in the family tree.
At 18, you are in an interesting position. Obviously, you are an adult, but it’s not like when you hit your 18th birthday some sort of magic happens that tells you what to do with your life and makes you fully independent and self-assured. There may be things you still rely on your parents for. You may or may not live with them. Therefore, boundaries can be more tricky to enforce. I’m not sure of your exact situation, but I just want to acknowledge that. It’s not always as easy as just putting up firm boundaries and sticking to them no matter what.
Discussing generational trauma
Bringing up the concept of generational trauma and asking for some sort of change can be tricky. One way to begin the conversation and learn more about your parents might be to ask some questions from a curious mindset. For example, ask them about the way in which they were raised. Ask them about the approach their parents or caregivers used to raise them, how they dealt with adversity, and whether there is something they wish their parents would have done differently. Questions like this can both give you insight into why they act the way that they do and open up dialogue about important issues that may need to be hashed out. You mentioned that your parents haven’t begun their healing process. If that is the case, they may have limited awareness or capability to talk about the concerns that you have. Therefore, in some cases it may be less of a dialogue with them and more of you silently taking good care of yourself and forming the boundaries that you need to keep yourself afloat. You can make requests or observations. You can talk about the way certain actions of theirs impact you, but in the end you don’t have control over them.
I can say from second-hand experience that sometimes boundaries such as no contact lead to great healing and changes and in other situations, the relationship just remains permanently ruptured. The boundaries and decisions that you make for yourself should be because they are healthy for you and for others. Not necessarily to preserve the relationship or status quo. It can be very helpful in situations like this to have someone on the outside that you can trust and confide in. This can be a professional like a therapist or it can be another family member that understands the situation, a close friend, or even a coach or mentor of some kind. When you exist within the network of what you are trying to change, it can be hard to get that solid balanced perspective and the support that you need.
On parenting parents
When it comes to explaining to them that you shouldn’t be the parent, I would be as clear with them as possible. You can say that you want to change the way that you interact because you are worried about the way things are going. You can say that you care about them, but if things don’t change you may not be able to maintain the same relationship with them. You can mention the ways in which you have been hurt or impacted by interactions and ask them what their side of the experience is. They are most likely going to have a reaction to the attempt at setting boundaries or changing things. They may blame you or shame you for it. If that is within their character, expect it. That reaction doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. Again, having someone outside of the picture, especially someone older with perspective can be helpful because that will allow you to run your thoughts and feelings by someone. To feel more confident that you are making the right choices.
If you feel like there is an opportunity for healing and improvement here, that’s great! You could bring up topics like I talked about earlier to start getting more comfortable with deep discussions with them. You could also have someone facilitate conversations between you all. Family therapy is also a great option to course correct and move forward in a better way. You can also encourage them to find help individually. With all of these suggestions, they may or may not be ready or willing to hear you. That’s okay. Changes are not going to be immediate. I encourage you to keep your intention and the “why” behind any boundaries or changes that you are asking for in your mind. Whenever things get screwy, return your focus to that intention and let that guide your actions. At a certain point, gaining some separation from the environment that has caused you so much pain could be necessary. That can take many forms and I would love for you to talk to a therapist about that. Sometimes getting outside of the bubble actually allows you to be a better family member, since you aren’t wrapped up in the conflict as much.
Nothing is set in stone and change is possible. I am proud of you for thinking about this. It may be a hard and painful experience to try to affect change in your family, but it’s also important and responsible. You don’t have to take on everything on your own. You are young. You are still figuring out your own life. You can’t be responsible for everyone else. In that way, you may need to also set your own boundaries with yourself. If you have not yet listened to it, definitely have a listen to episode 307 of the podcast or check out duffthepsych.com/settingboundaries for more information about boundary setting in general.
You can listen to this on Episode 323 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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