Children of Trauma Survivors

Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash

As a mother, I’m appalled when I realize what I had done to my daughter, even unknowingly. To this day, she still recalls having to keep quiet and tiptoe around me when she was just four years old because I would flip from numbness to rage in a split second. 

Most of the day, however, I would sleep. I’d have migraines for weeks at a time, leaving me ensconced in my room because any light or noise only made the headache worse. This depression lasted for several years.

When I think of what I put my daughter through, I feel shame. This compounds the original shame I felt as a result of the abuse I received as a child.

Trauma, if unhealed, gets inadvertently passed down to the next generation. Children receive the indirect impact of our trauma and, in their own way, are recipients of “secondary trauma.” It impacts their being as well as their lives because they must learn defensive survival skills in order to live with their parents. Sadly, these skills become crippling defense mechanisms that they carry throughout life, often never knowing that they have. 

Let me be clear then that this is not what survivors do on purpose. They may not even know they do it. 

In my work as a healer and psychotherapist, I didn’t even realize how my trauma affected my children for a long time, even as I was undergoing my own healing. In fact, the field of psychology hadn’t yet discovered the severe effects of trauma — even on those directly traumatized.

To give you some of my background, I am a survivor of child physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. I also was a recipient of frequent and overt racial abuse growing up, some of which included physical and emotional components. Each of these forms of abuse are traumatic in and of itself; however, these together can absolutely debilitate a person. 

Of course, this was my life. I knew no other and, in the early ’50s, going for counseling was unheard of — unless one had severe mental illness. So, my traumatic experiences made me into a person that was seen as being overly sensitive and reactive. 

Later, I learned to “suck it up,” as though it were my fault that all these things happened to me. What I didn’t realize is that the trauma would have long-term impact not only on me, but on my children as well.  

When a survivor has not gone through the healing process, or even started it, they repeat behavior patterns that they originally used in order to survive. These can include addictions of all kinds, depression, or hyperactivity, to name a few. They can also become abusive themselves and/or develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Children of these parents live with the aftermath of their parents’ trauma their whole lives. And, just like trauma was normal to the survivor, these aftereffects feel normal to the children. They don’t realize that they also need healing. 

One of the ways that it gets passed down is when a child of a survivor reaches the same age as the parent was when they experienced the original trauma, the parent can unconsciously begin to mimic behavior that occurred during that trauma. And, if it is a child of the same sex as the parent, this becomes an even stronger trigger, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to differentiate between the parent and the child. 

Mind you again, this is all done outside of the survivor’s awareness. Sadly, the effects on the children are the same. For example, when my daughter was between the ages of 3 and 4, she was the same age that I was when my family and I escaped from Communism to the United States. That was when not only when the sexual and physical abuse began for me, but it was also when I was faced with racism and having to learn to live in a totally different culture. 

Needless to say, when she was that age, I was especially vulnerable to triggers from the past. I went into severe depression and didn’t realize what was happening: I was unconsciously recalling my original trauma. My daughter’s age triggered my own suppressed memories. 

I would have angry outbursts and direct them at her. She, in turn, learned to be compliant on the outside, listening to my tirades without outward emotion, stuffing her hurt and anger deep inside. She became a “people pleaser” like me, not even believing that she could actually ask for and receive something for herself. To this day, she still finds it difficult to say “no.” She’s learned to do it, yet feels guilty. 

I’ve also worked with many clients who have passed the effects of their traumas onto their children. I particularly remember one couple who were both alcoholics. When they came to me, they had stopped drinking due to the support of Alcoholics Anonymous, but hadn’t dealt with any of the issues that led them to alcoholism in the first place. They also couldn’t understand why their children were fast becoming alcoholics, especially after living in a dysfunctional family system where alcohol controlled everyone. 

The reason is that the parents became “dry drunks” but did not go further to seek professional help to deal with their own trauma. In fact, they did not understand that their children’s behavior was a family problem, not just the children’s. 

The point of this post is to alert survivors and their families to how damaging unhealed trauma is. It is not enough to simply “get on with your life,” because that life catches up with you in ways that you don’t expect. And, I know parents want the best for their children and would not want to pass on the effects of their trauma onto them. 

So, I urge you to heal, no matter how painful facing your trauma may be. It will not only help you, but also the ones you love the most. Here are some suggestions towards healing: 

  1. Seek professional help — preferably someone who is trained in this field. I find that referrals from people I trust makes me feel safer in going. No matter what the school of counseling/healing that person is trained in, it’s more important that you feel comfortable with him/her. If you feel uncomfortable, you have permission to leave and find another. You do not need to undergo this a second time alone.
  2. Find others who have been through similar trauma. You will come to understand that you are not alone, that others know exactly what you’re going through. Do not isolate yourself again.
  3. Once you have a better understanding of what you’re dealing with, explain it to your family and friends. Some of my clients have brought their families in with them to the sessions so that a third party can be more objective and help everyone through this time. 

I hope my story helps you start to understand the lifelong pain and heartbreak that gets passed down to those we love through trauma. And, especially in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trauma of global proportions, we need to be aware of the lasting, intergenerational suffering that unresolved trauma produces.