From coping with trauma to forming bonds of attachment that can serve us for the rest of our lives, our childhood experiences and our parenting can both help and hinder us as we navigate through the trials of life. Emma Johnson explores why these really are the formative years…
Major events, trauma and even the way we are parented as babies and young children can create a ripple effect that impacts our behaviour and mental health for decades, and even repeats when we become parents ourselves.
The foundations we are given, or not given, can shape the jobs we do, the relationships we have, how we cope with adversity and whether we are more prone to addictive or destructive behaviours. How we are protected from, or supported through, trauma can equally have enormous repercussions. Effectively, the adults we become are a direct product of the children we were. ‘We are but a link in a chain stretching back through millennia and forward until who knows when,’ says Philippa Perry in her seminal book The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read.
This can be challenging for many reasons, and often painful to confront, but reaching back into the past, sometimes even to a generation or two before you, can provide the answers and clarity that is desperately needed to help you break the cycle of trauma.
‘You unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviours, or hardships of an earlier member of your family system as if these were your own,’ explains Mark Wolynn in It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Wolynn suggests that not only can past traumas lead us to behave in a certain way, perhaps even deeply affecting the family dynamic into which a new baby is born, and must then survive, but certain traumatic events can alter a person’s genetic code or DNA, while the stress of trauma can also cause our brains to change. He cites instances of the grandchildren of holocaust survivors reporting subconscious fears of death, or phobias of being trapped and unable to breathe, while also sharing the findings from studies that showed lower cortisol levels in people who experienced PTSD, suggesting that this genetic trait could be passed down.
It’s a radical idea, but one echoed by Dr Bruce Perry, who explains in his book What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing that every experience we have is logged in a personal ‘codebook’ in our brain, which then goes onto shape us as adults. If we don’t deal with these traumas, we then pass this codebook onto our children, and they onto theirs, and so on. The cycle continues.
‘When we’re trying to understand trauma there is one essential question to ask: What happened to you? And especially, what happened to you when you were very young?’asks Perry. ‘Deciphering your own personal codebook will help you to understand seemingly inexplicable reactions and survival mechanisms that evolved to help keep you safe.’
The trauma children experience at a young age can have a lasting, and dramatic impact. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. They obviously include some of things you would expect – such as experiencing or witnessing violence, abuse, or neglect – as well as things such as the death of a family member, mental health problems, poverty, racism and divorce.
ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use in adulthood, but can even have a negative impact on education, job opportunities, and earning potential. Crucially, they are a severe cause of ‘toxic stress’ – a phenomenon which creates an excess of cortisol and adversely affects how a child’s brain develops.
Toxic stress and trauma go hand-in-hand, but this kind of stress reaction can even be created as far back as the very beginning stages of infancy. Babies’ brains are incredibly reactive, developing at 20,000 new neurons per second. All our experiences are stored in our brain, even if they appear later on as incidences that we don’t fully remember or understand.
It’s easy to discount the experiences of children as being unimportant because ‘they won’t remember’ and ‘are resilient’. However everything that happens to them is retained in some way, and resilience is something we learn from a safe and secure foundation, not something we are born with.
‘The capacity to love seems as natural as the capacity to breathe,’ says Dr Perry. ‘But actually, it’s something we have to learn from our earliest days. If you’ve never been loved you simply won’t know how to do it.’
Philippa Perry explains how vital it is to create solid foundations for small babies, so they learn to see the world as a safe, loving place, where they feel they belong. ‘Whatever calamities befall them in life, they will be less easily knocked off course and they will recover more quickly if they have always felt like they belong and they are lovable.’
This is known as secure attachment and includes our approach to infant sleep, the mother-child bond and how we respond to our baby’s cries. While secure attachment is the goal, if children don’t feel a bond with their mother, if they are forced into sleep training and being left to cry, many children will instead form dismissive, insecure or avoidant attachment, leading to them to believe they will always be ignored, lonely, unable to form trusting relationships, lacking in empathy and so on. These children have never had their basic needs of tenderness and care met, and so they cannot grow up resilient and loving, because they simply haven’t been given the foundation from which to learn these things.
The impact of this inability to love and protect yourself is enormous. Children in crisis develop coping mechanisms designed to protect them from harm and to fill the void left by an absence of love and attachment. ‘What I’ve learned from talking to so many victims of traumatic events, abuse, or neglect is that after absorbing these painful experiences, the child begins to ache. A deep longing to feel needed, validated, and valued begins to take hold. As these children grow, they lack the ability to set a standard for what they deserve. And if that lack is not addressed, what often follows is a complicated, frustrating pattern of self-sabotage, violence, promiscuity, or addiction,’ says Dr Perry.
Addressing that lack, unpicking the past so you can heal in the present is vital. Not only for you, but for the generations that come after you. The things we have experienced in our childhood will come through in our own parenting – these events or moments from our childhood can have decades of repercussions.
But we can always change. We can’t erase what has happened to us, but we learn to cultivate resilience, despite them. Instead of ignoring our pain, which only deepens it, we need to expose it, make peace with it, and then allow it to move on. ‘By developing a relationship with the painful parts of ourselves – parts we have often inherited from our family – we have an opportunity to shift them. Qualities like cruelty can become the source of our kindness; our judgments can forge the foundation of our compassion,’ says Wolynn.
If you are interested in connecting with, and healing, your own childhood trauma, or working to prevent the same thing happening with your children, the following reading list provides guided exercises to help explore your past, parenting suggestions and a deeper look into the impact of trauma on our ability to live a whole-hearted, authentic life, and the tools to support you in overcoming it.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) (2019) by Philippa Perry
What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing (2021) by Oprah Winfrey & Dr Bruce Perry
It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End The Cycle (2016) by Mark Wolynn
Mother Hunger: How Adult Daughters Can Understand and Heal from Lost Nurturance, Protection, and Guidance(2021) by Kelly McDaniel
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal (2016) by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do: Raising Self-Assured Children and Training Their Brains for a Life of Happiness, Meaning, and Success (2017)
by Amy Morin
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (2014) by Janet Lansbury