Interrupting Intergenerational Trauma

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By Dafna Lender, LCSW

One of the most important decisions a therapist makes is how broadly to define the problem that clients bring into treatment. In an individualistic culture such as ours, it’s common to focus narrowly on whoever is exhibiting problem behavior, without understanding the wider family context shaping the issues of immediate concern. Often the key to working effectively with a family is expanding the therapeutic perspective to include the history of intergenerational trauma underlying the present-day issues, even if that’s not the family’s view of the origins of the presenting problem.

It’s not easy to introduce this perspective to parents. When parents bring their child for therapy, they don’t expect or want to be the focus of work. That’s why one of the first things I tell parents is that I work from an attachment perspective and will be working as much with them as with their child, or sometimes more. When they’re willing to look into their own childhood history and how it may be contributing to the situation, the real work can begin.

The Boss?

John’s entire identity was his family business. He owned a wood-processing plant and a small horse farm, and worked all the time, even on weekends. He never meant to become a client, but when he brought his 11-year-old son, Adam, to see me, I insisted he come too since I specialize in family therapy. I’d have asked that mom join us, but she worked the swing shift as a nurse and wasn’t available after school.

Adam had anxiety and executive functioning deficits and had been diagnosed with ADD and oppositional defiant disorder. When I asked for details, John said, “Adam’s in his own world: he doesn’t listen. He needs to be told three times just to do simple things, like clearing his cereal
bowl from the table. Same with going to school, going to bed—whatever we say, he stalls and doesn’t listen.”

When I met Adam, he was on three different psychotropic meds, including a sedative for sleeping. He told me what he thought the problem was: “I can’t think straight sometimes. I forget. When my dad tells me to do something, it sounds far away. Then he gets mad and yells at me.

I then asked Adam about the anxiety and fears that the psychiatrist was medicating him for. “I can’t sleep at night because I’m scared someone is gonna crawl through the window,” he said. “My dad tells me that’s impossible because we’re so high up, but my sister can climb the tree. Also, I’m scared of Kiko, one of our mares, because she gets scared by critters, and twice she kicked me when she saw a mouse.”

“How do you deal with these fears?”

“I try to tell my dad that I don’t want to muck the stalls. I’ll fill the trough and the water buckets and stuff, but I don’t want to go in behind her because she gets spooked so easily.”

I turned to John and asked, “Is that a fair deal? He’ll take care of the chores outside the stall but won’t go in?”

“That’s fine for now, but it’s not a solution. Adam has to learn that he’s in charge. Horses are social animals. If you’re scared, they’re scared. But if you’re confident, they’re as calm as can be.”

It turns out that was John’s entire parenting philosophy. Whenever Adam was scared, John told him he had to put mind over matter and be courageous. This also applied to the bully Adam was contending with on the school bus and when he had fears about going to sleep alone at night.

I tried several different tactics in family therapy to help John understand that this philosophy wasn’t working for his son: I had Adam express how he felt unprotected and judged for his fears. I educated John about the brain and how admonitions and lectures won’t help a frightened child. I recommended John do things with his son, rather than ordering him to do his chores by himself.

John always nodded in seeming accordance; however, the next week, Adam would report the same things happening. John would ask Adam to go to bed but wouldn’t tuck him in; John would tell Adam to muck the stalls, even though we agreed they’d do it together; John yelled at Adam for dawdling before school, even though we talked about his fear of the bullies on the bus. When I asked John why he couldn’t implement our strategies, he said he was tired and couldn’t muster the energy. In exasperation, he said, “Adam is going to have to manage the
factory when he’s older. If he can’t stand up to a horse or a kid on the bus, how is he going to be the boss of 35 workers at the factory?”

Attachment Relationships

In our individual session, I asked John questions about his growing up, such as how his parents showed affection and how they punished him. Were there any family secrets, alcoholism or other addictions, any significant losses or deaths? Did anyone other than his parents take care of him? Did he feel rejected as a child? These questions are adapted from the Adult Attachment Interview, which asks adults to recall attachment-related memories from early childhood. The responses lead to adult-attachment classifications in three main areas that can help inform therapy.

Autonomous or secure adults tend to value attachment relationships. They can coherently describe the impact of attachment-related experiences, such as being sick and needing comfort, or losing an important relationship because of death, moving away, or divorce. Dismissing adults tend to devalue the importance of attachment relationships or to idealize their parents without being able to give any examples of their goodness. Preoccupied adults are still very much involved with their past attachment experiences and can’t explore them productively. They often express anger when discussing current relationships with their parents. Dismissing and preoccupied adults are both considered to be insecure.

When I asked John about his relationship with his father, he told me he revered him. He described his father as a hard-working war hero devoted to his community. Rather than sounding personal, John’s description of his father seemed like a reporter’s account of a man on a pedestal.

When I asked for specific adjectives to describe his relationship with his father, he said: kind, strict, inspiring. I asked if he had specific memories for those adjectives. For strict, he described the work ethic his father had imposed on him and his brothers, requiring them to help at the factory and around the property, as well as maintain excellent grades and play football in high school. For inspiring, he said his father had helped rebuild the church with his own hands after part of it had burned down. For kind, he recalled that he’d once disobeyed curfew, and when he’d come home, his dad was sitting in the dark with a rifle across his lap. John laughed and said he jumped five feet in the air, but his dad didn’t say a word and didn’t punish him. “That was his way of showing mercy on me.”

Noticing a dismissive pattern of attachment, I pointed out that John’s father seemed quite frightening—which prompted John to defend his father adamantly, invoking the wisdom of his ways. He kept repeating that he was much softer than John’s grandfather, a volatile, angry man, who’d beaten John’s father. “He was a tough SOB,” he told me. “As John continued to talk about his experience, I could see he had flashes of fear, anger, and sadness, and I made a point of demonstrating an intense focus and presence, nodding my head and expressing empathy in my voice.

This was the beginning of my therapy with John. It took us about five months of weekly sessions for him to see the impact of his own experiences as a child, and how the legacy of violence, loss, and fear had been playing into his parenting attitudes toward Adam. Trauma is transmitted between generations when frightening experiences go unnamed and cause a child to internalize.

Stopping Intergenerational Trauma

One of the most important things John and I worked on was honoring the fact that his father had done the best he could and acknowledging that as a child John had harbored real and legitimate emotional needs that had gone unmet. The next step was to have empathy for John’s young self as he endured isolating and invalidating experiences with his father. In the process, John remembered several other disturbing and frightening incidents when his father had intimidated and humiliated him in his efforts to raise him up to be “a strong man.” Since a persistent and corrosive feeling that John and many trauma survivors have is that they deserve the treatment they received, we provided him the opportunity to “reparent” his child self through self-compassion, modeled through my compassionate attitude.

Once John had come to terms with his childhood trauma, we turned our attention to his ability to repair with Adam. John had to take responsibility for invalidating and scaring Adam. In one touching session, he looked his son in the eye and apologized for forcing him to muck the stall, even though Kiko had kicked him in the head, and said how sorry he was for making him feel that his fears were not valid.

John told his son how hard it was to allow him to express his fear because he himself was taught that being sad or afraid was wrong; he added that he’s learning to approach things differently from how his father had handled them. In a subsequent session, the three of us discussed how scary events can be passed down from one generation to another.

I encouraged Adam and John to discuss how Adam’s great-grandfather/John’s grandfather might’ve felt in his young adult life, not as a way to justify his brutal behavior but to have compassion for their family’s legacy of tragedy and fear. This is an important aspect of healing, so the inherited history can be named, honored, and then ceremoniously set aside as an artifact, rather than kept in play as an element to be passed down from generation to generation.

The final piece of the therapy in healing the intergenerational trauma between father and son was teaching John about the importance of joyful play, physical proximity, and touch, which helps heal the attachment rupture and lay the groundwork for healthy patterns. John had had no experience of affection, tenderness, and nurturing in his childhood. Therefore, he had no idea how to be present for another person on a physical level.

Our therapy involved showing John how to stay close to his son during bedtime, including sitting shoulder to shoulder, stroking Adam’s hair, and the importance of storytelling as a way to calm Adam’s anxious brain. It turns out that, when given the freedom to be by Adam’s side, John enjoyed lying next to Adam and making up adventure stories. Adam’s night-time problems went away.

As for the school fears, John tried to advocate for a bus monitor to prevent bullying, but that didn’t work. He tried meeting Adam at the bus stop to give the bully an intimidating look, but that only made things worse. Then one session, when they came in and I checked in on how the week went, Adam said, “It was great. Dad drove me to school every day.” My eyes widened in surprise and I looked at John.

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “I don’t want Adam to waste his energy having to worry about some twerp on the bus. I figure let him start out his day without that hassle so he can focus on learning.” Adam nodded. It was a much better week.

In the end, even the powerful intergenerational legacy of trauma within a family can be transformed once its relevance to a current problem is identified and family members become motivated to see their struggles in a new light. The key to change in this case was creating a new narrative, which superseded the patriarchal legacy and opened the way for John and Adam to join together to create a new, more fulfilling relationship.

The past, no matter how entrenched, is not destiny and need not determine the future.


Join Dafna for a 4-week training in Integrative Attachment Family Therapy (registration closes October 31 at 5pm). Class begins November 1, 2023.

Family therapy expert and attachment specialist Dafna Lender, is an international trainer and supervisor for practitioners who work with children and families. She is a certified trainer and supervisor/consultant in both Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP), as well as an EMDR therapist. Dafna’s expertise is drawn from 25 years of working with families in many settings: at-risk after school programs, therapeutic foster care, in-home crisis stabilization, residential care and private practice. Dafna’s style, whether as a therapist or teacher, is combining the light-hearted with the profound by bringing a playful, intense and passionate presence to every encounter.

Dafna is the author of Integrative Attachment Family Therapy (2023) and the co-author of Theraplay the Practitioner’s Guide (2020). She teaches and supervises clinicians in 15 countries in 4 languages: English, Hebrew, French and Spanish.

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