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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jess

The Weight of Generational Trauma

Terrance, a recent highly intelligent, artistic high school graduate, is preparing for his freshman year at college. He has several mixed emotions as he will be 1000 miles away from his family. It will be the first time he will be away from them for any significant amount of time. He especially has some anxiety due to a history of abandonment issues by his father, after a tumultuous divorce between his parents, ten years ago. He has been an emotional and physical pillar to his mother and younger siblings and has guilt, fear, and anxiety about starting his life without his family. Terrance wants to make his family proud, but ultimately feels he has some level of responsibility for their well-being.

Terrance's childhood was emotionally truncated as he had to step up early to help out with his family and keeping up the home. He was exposed to too many "grown folks" conversations about his parents, that exposed the not-so-great parts of humanity, causing him to become guarded from close relationships with peers, dating, and extended family. He struggles with trusting people, often feels he has to walk on eggshells around both parents, and feels he has to be "perfect" for his younger siblings. He doesn't have much of a support system for himself - not because it isn't available, but because he never was shown how to rely on support. He watched his parents manage their pain by shutting down, engaging in adult-tantrums, and simply not communicating in an effective manner. He never learned the value of support, asking for help, or understanding the power of humility and forgiveness.

As he progresses through the first semester of college, Terrance becomes increasingly more apprehensive about continuing school. He is noticing increased fatigue, sleeping problems, challenges paying attention in class, and not feeling motivated. He is considering going into the workforce, but does not want to disappoint his family. Although at odds with his father, deep down he has a desire to please him and to feel accepted. His father has a long history of his own trauma, creating several blindspots into his parenting style. His father's pain prevents him from being physically and emotionally present in his life, as his father is emotionally consumed with his own past with his father (Terrance's grandfather). Terrance's grandfather and father have a contentious history, often resulting in patterns of them not talking for years at a time. This family "rule" of shutting people out and punishing them with separation and avoidance, has trickled down several generations. Terrance is ultimately burnt-out by the time he is starting his adult life, because of all of the unhealthy family "rules" that have been passed down through the generations. Avoiding pain, not communicating, broken relationships, and becoming parentified at a young age are all common themes of generational trauma. Terrance is at a common crossroad experienced by young black youth entering adulthood; burnt out, wise beyond their years, and emotionally constipated because they began carrying the weight of trauma from past family generations at a very young age.

Although Terrance is a fictional character, situations like his are not uncommon. Maybe we know a Terrance, are Terrance, or maybe raising a 'Terrance' and don't realize it. In his case, he experienced his family breaking apart at a young age, and him being relied on to fill in the gaps. His parents were so consumed with their pain and emotional needs, they were unable to manage their boundaries within the parent-child relationship. Terrance struggles with feeling the privilege and freedom of a "normal" teenager who is beginning life. He is consumed with wanting to be support for his mother and siblings and gaining the acceptance of his father, because he experienced those expectations at a young age. He struggles to embrace his own independence because he was expected to meet the needs of others so young. He fears making the wrong choice and is unaware of his own blind spots as a result of his exposure to ineffective relationship skills demonstrated by the adults in his life.

Terrance's parents each have their own history of generational trauma. His mother was raised by parents who relied heavily on corporal punishment and experienced some sexual abuse in her past by a family friend. As a result, she experiences some difficulties with intimacy, trusting people, and struggles with realistic expectations and boundaries with others, as well as managing her emotions effectively. His father was also raised by abusive parents who were often avoidant and emotionally unavailable, leading to his own struggles with relationships, attaching to people, and problem solving. Terrance, although intellectually bright, well-liked, and very responsible, is mentally and emotionally exhausted from carrying not only his trauma, but the trauma that resides in the shadows of his parents.

The history of black trauma is immeasurable. Stories like these are common across families of all kinds, yet the prevalence and impact is always likely to be greater in black family systems. It is imperative that this current generation engage in deep, intentional self-care to discontinue this long line of trauma in our veins. Therapy, with a black professional (or other, humble, culturally-competent therapist) who is well-versed in trauma in the black experience is a very intentional healing way these patterns. It takes work and energy to break down the barriers of carrying the weight of the past, and creating new family "rules" going forward. It may feel scary and unsettling to break away from the familiar way that family handles (or avoids) problems, but it is essential to give hope to the future generations.

Therapy helps us to put the weight down, helping us to see that it is not our responsibility to carry any further. We must give ourselves permission to grieve the way things were, while also moving forward recognizing our full power and potential. It doesn't mean we are leaving people in the past, but we are adjusting the way that we experience love and pain. Therapy helps us to make room to hear our loved ones and to no longer punish them with our silence or avoidance. It helps us to move away from seeing things solely from our perspective and to understand how we are inflicting our pain and trauma onto our loved ones. Therapy is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, our future, and to pay homage to our ancestors. What better way to honor their lives, than to engage in our own healing - something that they did not have the time or privilege to do in unspeakable circumstances. We must honor our ancestors and ourselves by recognizing our breath and liberating ourselves from the weight of the past.

  • Terrance is a fictional character created to bring light to this topic. Aspects of this story are common themes observed in literature, media, and as many of us know, daily life.

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