Dr. Worthy uses storytelling to define, explore, and normalize intergenerational trauma. She discusses what it looks like, and how it affects the nuclear family system (including couple hood, parenting, and developmental needs for children), and offers strategies to heal from unresolved pain within the family system. This is a three-part series and each part will follow the Sturgis family, a fictional family that was created for educational purposes, it is not based on actual events.
Transcript for Episode 2
Generational Trauma Part 1 of 3
(Linda A. 0:03)
WorthyTherapy explores the intersection of mental health and identity in the Black, Queer, and athletic communities. Dr. Keoshia Worthy, a Licensed Psychologist, uses her humaneness to relate to the listeners by targeting an audience she identifies with. And she answers the question, “How do I know if and when therapy is needed?”
Description of Episode
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 0:23)
Hi and welcome to WorthyTherapy, I am your host, Dr. Keoshia Worthy. In today’s episode, I will use storytelling to explore intergenerational trauma. This is a three-part series, and this episode will focus on how intergenerational trauma affects the nuclear family system. The story is about three generations of the Sturgis family, a fictional family I created for educational purposes only; it is not based on actual events.
Cheryl Hughes, an 83 y/o Black woman, married her now deceased husband, Joseph Sturgis, in 1955. They were married for 57 years before Joe’s passing. Cheryl wanted a huge family but unfortunately struggled with multiple miscarriages and was blessed with two children, Joyce, and JJ, which stand for Joseph Jr.
Joyce is 62, unmarried, with three kids of her own, and JJ 55, had two failed marriages and is now working on his third. Joyce and JJ struggled with romantic commitment, despite their parent’s model of 57 years.
What is generational trauma?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 01:24)
Generational trauma is the passing on of unhealthy habits and ways of relating to others due to unresolved hurt, pain, grief, or, simply put…trauma. In some communities, we refer to it as a ‘generational curse.’ This implies that families struggle to get out of maladaptive patterns that can lead to more distress and helplessness, ultimately putting strain on the family system.
Cheryl’s years-long battle with miscarriages caused her to withdraw from her marriage. She often experienced sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of motivation; Joseph would come home after a long day and find that Cheryl had never left her bed.
After several failed attempts, Joyce arrived. Although Cheryl was grateful for the blessing of Joyce, she continued to mourn the children that didn’t make it. Cheryl and Joyce’s relationship was complicated from Joyce’s perspective; either Cheryl provided a ton of affection and love, or she would be cold and distant. Joyce tried to lean on her papa Joseph, but he was also affected by the several attempts at pregnancy and coped with alcohol.
What does it look like in daily life?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 02:26)
Generational trauma can be direct and in your face, such as physical or verbal abuse, and it can be covert or inadvertent, such as in the case of the Sturgis family. Joyce struggles with identifying what healthy love and emotional attunement look like due to her parents’ inconsistency. Additionally, when there is unresolved trauma in the presence of children, this impacts the child’s own identity and emotional development.
How does it affect our people and us?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 02:50)
Children are new to the world and take many cognitive, social, and emotional cues from their caregivers. When there is a lack of a critical need (such as touch, support, validation, attention), the child may be left with overcompensating: (trying to be a “perfect” child to alleviate the family distress, parentification (switching roles with parents and being the caregiver), or struggling with emotional regulation to name a few.
I want to take a second to highlight the terms emotional regulation and emotional attunement. In short, emotional attunement is the awareness of another’s emotional needs (such as love, care, and relief from pain) without them even asking for it. Having this experience earlier helps the child feel secure and supported, and models safety, and allows the child to identify and regulate their emotions. Emotional regulation is an essential part of development. It involves the ability to control and manage one’s emotions and intensity healthily. That means choosing a coping mechanism like walking away, communicating openly, journaling; instead of using aggressive language, shutting down or withdrawing, or using substances to cope.
Cheryl and Joseph love their kids. They made sure they had clothes on their back, their bellies were full, and they supported them financially the best they could. They attended all of JJ’s high school football games and were able to scrape up the money to pay for Joyce’s college tuition. However, they struggled with providing a listening and supportive ear when Joyce expressed frustration with making friends and being excluded during middle school. And they didn’t know how to comfort or what to say when JJ rushed to marry his teenage girlfriend because she was pregnant. JJ and Joyce know their parents loved them, but they wish they had deeper conversations about who they are as people, relationships, and life. They wanted their parents to hug them after not getting the lead role in the play, to ask questions about how they were doing, not about their grades in school or chores; they wanted a deeper emotional connection to them.
In the case of the Sturgis family, intergenerational trauma has impacted the nuclear system. Cheryl and Joseph’s marriage wasn’t as fulfilling as it had been before the consecutive pregnancy attempts; they grew apart emotionally. They both struggled with the losses and chose their way to cope. In turn, they lost sight of providing consistent love, care, and attention. I want to emphasize consistency. No one is perfect and will be able to give what is needed 100% of the time; however, what children need is consistency. To know that their parents will be attuned in a way that predicts their need, to know when a warm gesture is required, as opposed to minimization or brushing over a conversation due to busyness or work.
Since the consistency was not there, Joyce struggled with developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships. She struggles with identifying and regulating her emotions; JJ continues searching for happiness with women instead of finding his internal happiness. In addition, after the passing of Joseph, beloved Cheryl went even more inward and shut herself off emotionally from her children. Each of them longs for emotional connection and open and honest communication. They have not recovered from the loss of the children (JJ’s and Joyce’s siblings), who unfortunately did not survive.
How do we repair trauma within the family system?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 05:58)
How do we repair trauma within the family system? Firstly, we want to identify the hurt and the pain. Instead of repressing or choosing to ignore difficult emotions, we want to invite them in. Many communities shame or stigmatize negative emotions such as sadness, inadequacy, or guilt. Often, this occurs because they do not know how to manage their feelings when they arise. However, we want to increase our awareness of our mind-body connection. We want to be able to feel the emotion in the body, label it (as melancholy, for example), and we want to explore what it means, where it comes from, and create or utilize strategies to alleviate it.
Secondly, we want to increase our awareness of how our emotions can affect another and be able to recognize and understand the moods of others; we call this social awareness. Cheryl and Joseph were unaware of how their lack of attention, care, and nurturance influenced their children. They were also not attuned to their children’s inner world. For example, Joyce stayed in her room, cried most of the day, and was quiet during family dinner, unlike her. Neither Cheryl nor Joseph asked her what was wrong or commented on the change. Instead, they continued their usual conversation at dinner and their nightly routine.
Finally, we want to normalize feelings. Feelings are not good or bad; they are simply feelings. Our emotions are trying to tell us something; they are helpful because they allow us to understand ourselves better and make decisions. We want to talk about our feelings and encourage children to talk about theirs. As mentioned earlier, children are new to the world. They take their cues from the adults in their lives. If the adult shows vulnerability and uses language to express themselves while also managing their emotions, the child would likely do the same. For parents, I encourage asking questions while inserting said emotion. For example, “What was most stressful about your day?” “What took place at the party that made you angry?” These questions help children connect their emotions with an external experience, to understand themselves and their reactions
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 08:05)
As we close today’s episode, I want to remind you that family therapy is available and can be helpful for families who are struggling with unresolved pain and injuries within the family system. This service can be provided by Marriage and Family Therapists and psychologists, and therapists who specialize in treating families.
What to expect in next episode?
(Dr. Keoshia Worthy 08:24)
As a reminder, intergenerational trauma is a three-part series. The next episode will focus on how it impacted Joyce and JJ’s adult lives. In that episode, we will discuss attachment styles, how to unlearn maladaptive patterns, and to improve interpersonal functioning.
(Linda A. 08:44)
WorthyTherapy thanks you for taking time out for yourself today. The path to mental wellness comes with multiple challenges, and Dr. Worthy hopes that this week’s episode made life feel more manageable and hopeful.
Please remember that this podcast is not a replacement for psychotherapy. If you are interested in seeking mental health support, please follow up with your healthcare insurance or visit the links in the podcast's description.
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