A rhetorical question about generational trauma popped up in a TikToker's video last week. In that video she mentioned that the transmission of trauma can have genetic implications, which we’ve discussed a bit in a previous article. A comment left on that video was someone questioning whether trauma really could be genetic. I responded to that comment with a short video to basically say, yes, trauma can be passed down genetically. I encouraged viewers to look up gene expression, also known as epigenetics and how trauma can influence predispositions to a variety of health conditions, including mental health disorders. Generational trauma is also passed down behaviorally and emotionally; it can be a reason that you struggle to connect with people in a way that helps you feel safe. For many people, either becoming a parent, considering to navigate the journey of parenthood, or reaching your mid 30s, is a time that you start to reflect on present relationships and why they may not be living up to what you have idealized. For many people, emotional neglect in childhood is the root cause of insecurities and walls that you have created to keep people from hurting you. The problem is, walls also keep people from being there for you. Today, we are going to use emotional neglect as our framework for healing your inner baby.
Emotional neglect is an area considered to be childhood trauma. Depending on the severity, it could be a little “t” trauma or a big “T” trauma. Nevertheless, we have to remember that your first relationships, the relationships that you had with your primary caregiver(s), subconsciously taught you how to be in relation with others, how you can be cared for or not within relationships, and what is allowed and expected of you in relationships. This gets coded in your subconscious and becomes part of your felt sense of knowing. Therefore, if your parents’ primary caregivers were emotionally unavailable most of the time to your parents, your parents would have likely struggled to be emotionally available to you. In turn, you may now struggle to be emotionally available to others without even knowing that you are doing so. And, the cycle of trauma continues. Check out the video below for an example.
What does this have to do with my inner baby?
Emotional neglect does not equate to amount or capacity for love. Your primary caregivers likely loved you wholeheartedly, full stop, the best way they knew how. They may have even improved in their approach to nurturing you as you aged. Maybe. However, it’s possible that you were not responded to as quickly as you needed as an infant, weren’t held enough, weren't played with enough or engaged with enough consistency that helped you maintain your felt sense of knowing that someone would be there for you when you needed them. You entered into this world only knowing the scents and sounds (if you were born hearing) of your birthing parent and whomever they interacted with most frequently. Your tiny baby brain and body only knew those people as safe and reliable, but if that did not continue after your birth, you were impacted. Whether we like it or not, babies need that felt sense to be maintained after birth to help regulate their nervous system. Yet, we did not always know that to be true. There was a time in the US when it was thought that babies needed separation from parents as quickly as possible to establish independence. Some families and cultures practiced this for generations believing it was best for baby. There was no research or evidence, this just seemed like the right thing to do. So maybe just maybe, your inner baby, the youngest version of you that still carries a felt sense needs help developing a new network of knowing.
Developing insight leads to compassion for your inner baby
Now that you have spent a week learning to be present a bit more, meditating with your inner baby in mind, and developing self-compassion, you have a beginning foundation for healing your inner baby. To take this next step, you are going to increase your compassion for your inner baby through understanding your caregiver(s). Please continue doing the steps from last week while you work through this journey.
I ask you to think about the generations in which your caregiver(s) were raised. I want you to do this because it gives you a better understanding of what the childrearing rules were at that time within your culture, region, country, etc. It allows you to understand a glimpse of the trauma that your caregivers may have faced directly or generationally, before you existed. For example, if your parents are part of the Baby Boomers’ generation (born between 1946 - 1964), they lived through Jim Crow laws, Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his assasination in 1968, John F. Kennedy’s assasination, hiding under desks to practice for missiles and bombs being drop over schools, and so much more. All of those events occurred before the oldest Boomer would have reached age 25. Take note that the human brain is still developing well into the mid to late 20s and trauma has a significant impact on socioemotional and cognitive development, such as executive functioning.
"walls that you have created to keep people from hurting you. ... walls also keep people from being there for you."
While the impact of those events varied drastically by sociodemographic factors such as race, all members of that generation were affected in their own way. A common parenting thread that came from Boomers was “wanting better for their children than they had growing up.” While that was a great sentiment, many of them did not know better beyond financial implications and, perhaps, changes in overt racism because they were raised by a generation that experienced things like World War II, the Great Depression, racial lynchings, and racial internment - inhumane prison camps. Many of them did not know that they had residual effects of trauma influencing their beliefs, behaviors and even genes. They thought if they could just make more money than their parents, you know, provide for their families, then their children would have it better. But, this generation was plagued by rules such as: children should be seen and not heard; if you give a child too much affection, they will be soft and unprepared for the harsh realities of the world (developed as a safety belief); children don't need love, they need a stern hand.
There are many ways that you can think about your caregivers' generation. You may want to journal this, develop a timeline, draw a diagram or a tree with the roots being each event, or any creative way that helps you visualize the possible generational influences that created your parents. After you have mapped out those parts of your parents' history, pause. Allow yourself to feel the gravity of what they experienced. Incorporate deep breaths while you hold their generational traumas in mind, and prepare to release them.
Then, return to your map and add baby you. Add the things and events that baby you needed for a felt sense of knowing. If you can, go beyond the basics of food/milk, diaper changes, and warmth. Think about types of touch (e.g., cradling, hugs, snuggled kisses) or sounds (e.g., phrases that would have been helpful to receive from your caregivers). You can put these items in a different color or some other way that differentiates them from your parents' lived experiences.
Once you have added what you needed as a baby, Reflect on the below questions. If you find yourself answering before you've paused and looked at the full map, pause. Be thoughtful in your responses. The journey is about the process, not the speed of you crossing a moving finish line.
What events in my parents' generation may have prevented baby me from getting my needs met?
What behaviors may I have developed in an effort to feel secure? (e.g., did I cry more often or learned to stay relatively quiet?)
What behaviors are getting in the way of me communicating or connecting with others?
What sensations do I notice in my body while doing this exploration? Where do I notice these sensations?
Visualize giving your inner baby what you needed so many moons ago. In this visualization, let it be adult you holding, cradling, caring for baby you; responding to your needs with consistency. I know it may seem strange at first, but take note of your emotions afterwards. Remember to spend some time intentionally grounding yourself before and after each visualization. Pay special attention to the areas in your body where you noticed sensations or discomfort while doing this activity. Allow extra breaths, stretching, and nurturing for those areas. Finally, make time for play. It doesn't matter how old you are, play is important. It may not look the same that it did when you were a child, but it is an area of need nonetheless. As you heal your baby, you'll start changing the way that your genes express themselves. You'll begin healing generational trauma starting with baby you.
Here are the key points of this article now that we have explored parts of generational trauma through the lens of emotional neglect.
Emotional neglect can be traumatic, but doesn't mean you were unloved.
Trauma can be passed down generationally and genetically.
Grounding yourself can help you stay planted firmly in today's safety while exploring yesterday's traumas.
It's important to reflect on what behaviors you have developed and which ones you can leave in the past.
Continue with short meditations can help the healing journey.
Allow yourself to feel and play.
Next week, we will switch gears a bit and learn strategies for when your inner child is triggered by your actual child making it hard for you to parent effectively. In the meantime, please be gentle with yourself, wrap yourself in compassion, douse yourself with love and make moments for play.
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