It’s one of the most startling, and at times most delightful, biological gifts of parenthood: when you unexpectedly see yourself, or your beloved, or Grandma Ellie, reflected in your own child.
Maybe it’s a talent for taking apart a car engine, the ability to dunk a basketball, the resurgence of one of your mother’s mannerisms you never thought you’d see again. There is an amusing, affirming high-five from the universe about passing on some physical or mental family heirlooms to your offspring.
But what about the stuff we don’t want to pass on?
And what about the stuff we shouldn’t pass on?
Do our kids inherit our alcoholism? Our short tempers? Our prejudices? Our OCD tendencies, our workaholism? If we were victims of a crime, do our kids automatically become more at risk? Because of our fears, do some of us risk our kids foregoing vaccinations? And what about minor flaws, like a phobia around germs, a fear of swimming, or a tendency towards hypochondria?
The parenting question becomes: what can we do to spare our kids from the neuroses that plague us most?
One of the most baffling facts in my life is that although I grew up in a family without a trace of physical violence, at 23 I married an abusive man. After I left him four years later, an uncle confided in me that my father had grown up with family violence. Dad had never told me, I’m sure because he wanted to protect me from such a sad and unfortunate piece of his childhood. But I’ve long wondered: maybe I somehow inherited an acceptance of, or attraction towards, interpersonal abuse because of the family violence my father grew up with, even though I had no consciousness of it.
It turns out this is entirely possible – and we parents should be aware of how we pass trauma on to our kids. Here’s what Psychology Today has to say about the subject, in “Whose Neurosis is This, Anyway? Trans-generational Transmission of Trauma.”
“Without things ever being said, without actually knowing, children often ‘know.’ In many cases, children intuitively understand what has happened to their parents. Family secrets can backfire because nothing is ever really hidden. This osmotic passing of information between generations is somehow planted subconsciously into children. And often what has happened is hidden away because it’s unacceptable. To acknowledge it is to admit to the pain and the trauma. But children know and sometimes reenact that very same trauma—as if to somehow finish the family business.”
The solution is complex. First, we parents have to face our own demons, our own traumas, and deal with them responsibly, even when that means therapy or other treatments. Second, we have to understand that it’s possible, even if we never speak a word to our children about our scars, obsessions, addictions or failings, that our ordeals can infect our offspring. By absorbing this mind-bending reality, and taking responsibility for our own afflictions, experiences, or damage, we can free our children from repeating the past.
Here’s how Abigail Brenner, M.D., the New York psychiatrist who explains intergenerational trauma in Psychology Today, puts it:
“Whether on the individual or societal level, the issue seems to be about breaking the cycle of trauma altogether, and thus freeing all participants from having to identify with a traumatic and/or unresolved past…breaking the cycle of depositing parental trauma of any kind would free children from the burden of carrying the ‘unfinished business’ of their parents’ lives…Breaking the cycle of unresolved parental grief and mourning and the consequences that result from it, would allow children to be who they are, to own their own identity, without the encumbering load of pathological and unrealistic parental expectations.”
That’s what I have tackled in trying to free my children from my own intergenerational abuse experience. I talk to them regularly, openly, rationally about why I was vulnerable to abuse – and that it’s in my past, not their futures. This approach works even with less serious fears and quirks our kids can pick up. Spiders, flying, germs, kidnappings, Port-a-Potties? Recognize your fear as your fear – not rational, and not theirs. And then let it go and do everything you can to not pass on your crazy to your kids. Maybe even laugh at yourself, especially in front of your kids, so they know this is a Mom issue, not a kid issue.
Easier said than done, like everything about parenting. I was so afraid my children would drown that before they could swim, I made them wear life jackets every time we stepped onto the sand at the beach (and even on one very memorable, utterly dry ferry ride from New York to Connecticut). Was I crazy? Yes! Did I know it? Hell no! I actually thought – I was sure – I was the smartest, most protective mother on the planet. Even now, I’m not quite positive my phobia was a bad thing. Especially because my kids never drowned. And, interestingly, they all learned to swim by age three (probably to avoid crazy mom and her ubiquitous life vests).