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Lessons from A Banyan Tree- On Intergenerational Trauma

Ever since the release of Generations Deep, there is one question that I am consistently presented with time and time again: “Are generational patterns something that everyone experiences?” The answer isn't as simple as "yes or no." Rather, it lies in deepening our understanding of what we mean by “generational patterns.”

There are a lot of nuances to the idea of generational dysfunction and trauma, so, to help in our endeavor, it might help us to look at an unconventional example: the banyan tree.

On a recent trip to the Florida Keys, my husband and I were out exploring when we happened along this incredible tree that stopped me in my tracks. At first glance, it seemed as though multiple, non-related trees were growing in tight proximity to each other.

However, upon closer examination, I realized it wasn’t a collection of disconnected trunks, but instead, the magnificent forest before me was a myriad of trees all sprouting from the very same roots. While they differed slightly in appearance (some taller, some thicker, some branching out, some growing straight), they all started from the same place.

And that is what makes it the perfect metaphor for our discussion on generational patterns.

Generational Trauma Patterns

Generational trauma patterns and dysfunction aren’t always about the exact patterns of behavior repeating from one generation to the next. While our experience as children is influenced by those who care for us, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to behave in the exact manner as the adults who were in charge of our wellbeing.

Often, what gets repeated are motivations, beliefs, traits, or consequences that present differently from one generation to the next. They may look different, but the root is the same.

Let’s look at a story that can help us better grasp this concept.

Examples of Generational Trauma

Leon is the oldest of 6 children. He was raised in poverty with a rage-aholic father and a codependent mother. He learned at a young age the importance of making himself “small” to avoid attracting the rath of his father. He would often step in to console his mother and help her with his siblings. The first chance he got to leave home was at age eighteen. He enlisted in the Army and never went back home.

During his time in the service, he began drinking with friends. He liked the numbness it offered and quickly became a regular drinker. His military service didn’t suffer, but his relationships did. Friends often found him unpredictable. But alcohol became his main means of coping, and he had no interest in changing that.

Even after he was married, Leon continued to drink to excess. In his drunken state, he would sometimes be fun-loving and playful, the life of the party and exceptional playmate for his children. On the good days, his inebriated state would cause him to be affectionate toward his wife and kids, making his drinking easy to overlook.

But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, Leon would get “black out drunk,” and on those occasions, his mood would turn dark. His words for his wife and children would turn cruel. He would break things in the home and at times, become physically violent. In contrast, when Leon was sober, he was calm, rational, apologetic and remorseful. He would vow never to drink again and for a time, the home would be peaceful. Until it wasn’t.

For his son, Michael, this meant he never really knew which father he would come home to find. Was he going to get the calm, rational, sober dad, or the volatile, unpredictable, mean, and irrational drunk version? Maybe dad would be drunk, but in a great mood and ready to play. Then Michael could pretend Leon wasn’t drunk and focus on having a good time with dad.

As a result, Michael learned to “read the signs” as soon as Leon came home. He learned to adapt his behaviors according to the condition of his own father. He anticipated might “set dad off.” He worked hard to keep him happy, refused to let his own needs be known, quietly cleaned up the messes dad made while drunk and even managed the behavior of his siblings so as not have them provoke dad. He became dad’s “best friend” who never argued or complained. He even kept dad company while he drank and watched TV. Being the oldest, he also became the confidant to his mom, assuring her when dad was in a good mood and consoling her when dad was violent.

Fast forward to Michael’s college years. He left home for an out-of-state school, although he carried deep guilt and a lot of stress about leaving his siblings and mom behind. The stress of school combined with the stress of thinking about what’s happening back home became overwhelming. His roommate offered him something to “take the edge off” and, desperate to make it all go away, he accepted... Before long, Michael partied more than he’s studied. He struggled to keep his grades up, but didn’t want to go back home either, so he did his best to make it through his program.

After graduation, Michael met Lucy. Lucy’s homelife wasn’t that much different from Michael’s, and they found comfort in the common ground. Lucy drank, but not to excess, and Michael tried to take his own drinking down a notch as well. That was until the stress of marriage, being a homeowner and eventually, a parent, pushed him back into drinking on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, Lucy has stopped drinking completely, despite the large number of similarities in her upbringing. Having had to navigate an unpredictable and emotionally unavailable parent in her own life, she’s right at home in dealing with Michael. She covers for him at work when he’s too hungover to go in. She also does her best to take on all of Michael’s problems, including helping him with his work in the hopes he will have less reasons to drink.

She makes their house a home--- a “perfect place” for him and her children, whom she coaches on how to “not rock the boat” with dad, and instead submerges her kiddos into all in the right sports, academic endeavors, extra-curriculars and even chooses their friends.

Lucy volunteers at church, leads a Bible study, works out six days a week, pays a great deal of attention to her outward appearance, throws the best parties for friends, family and colleagues, and is loved by everyone who “knows” her. But secretly, she feels insecure on most days and uncertain if she can maintain the frenetic pace.

Behind closed doors, she constantly exhausted, often set off by the smallest requests from the kids and says things like, “I do my best to make everything ok for you. Can’t you just be happy?”

So, the kids learn to “be happy” with what they’re given, not need anything more, including comfort, understanding or emotional safety. Each of them is learning to excel in school and sports, and how to put the needs of others before themselves in efforts to be liked and included.

They don’t know it yet, but the cycle is gearing up to repeat in their own lives- even if it looks nothing like mom and dad’s behaviors.

Same roots, different trees.

Motivations, Beliefs, Traits and Consequences

As I mentioned before, and as we see in the case of Michael and Lucy, it isn’t so much that the exact same behaviors repeat from one generation to the next (although they certainly can). Rather, it is the influence of one generation on the next that manifests in similar motivations, beliefs, traits and consequences.

In this story, we see similar motivations repeating- the need to numb out, to keep oneself safe, physically and emotionally. Then of course there are repeating beliefs. Beliefs along the lines of “I’m not safe” or “I need to put others’ needs first” or “I am responsible for my siblings’ or my parents’ wellbeing.”

Whenever the dysfunctional behaviors of one generation impact the next, there are certain behaviors that commonly arise. Traits like codependency, hyper-controlling, rigidity, disconnection from one’s emotions and emotional needs, addiction, perfectionism, and over-functioning for others. The consequences of generational impact also repeat, although they might shift in shape and varying degrees of severity. Generational trauma symptoms can look like:

  • Difficulty in recognizing toxic people

  • De-valuing self

  • Difficulty connecting with others

  • Attachment wounds

  • Physical health concerns

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Disconnection from self, others and God

  • Challenges in parenting the next generation

  • and more...

We Get to Choose What We Pass On

When it comes to the topic of generational dysfunction and trauma, we can only cover so much in one small article. It is my hope that within these few words I’ve shared here, you’ve begun to think differently about generational impact in your own family.

Exploring generational patterns can be a challenging journey, but one that is truly worth it. Every day we get to choose. We can either transform our pain or we transmit it to the generations after us.

For more resources on exploring generational dysfunction and trauma, you can check out Generations Deep: Unmasking Inherited Dysfunction and Trauma to Rewrite Our Stories Through Faith and Therapy (Audible Audio Edition): Gina Birkemeier LPC, Gina Birkemeier LPC, Gina Birkemeier, LPC: Audible Books & Originals.

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