The “trauma cycle” is when trauma gets passed down through generations. Is it possible to break the cycle?

A trauma cycle is when someone experiences trauma and then creates a similar experience for children in their care. It’s also known as intergenerational trauma.

Trauma can be passed on to future generations through how a parent interacts with their children, the behaviors and patterns children see their parents engaging in, or even through genetics or DNA.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 1 in 7 children in the United States experienced abuse or neglect in the last year, which can constitute trauma. Childhood neglect and abuse increase the chances that the cycle will repeat down the road.

Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT and founder of Take Root Therapy in California, uses the saying “hurt people hurt people” to refer to the intergenerational trauma cycle.

The effects of intergenerational trauma can impact many parts of your life, from how you see yourself to how you communicate with others.

“Trauma can inform nearly everything about the way we exist and engage with our worlds, including the ways we parent and model behaviors for children,” says Lurie.

It’s common for unresolved trauma to be passed along to children. If you’ve experienced trauma, you may not know what a healthy parent-child relationship looks like.

“This is part of why victims of abuse may go on to perpetuate that same abuse toward others, including their children,” Lurie says.

“Their lives and experiences were irrevocably colored by the abuse they suffered, and without any attempts to process and heal, they may find themselves replicating the trauma whenever something happens to trigger them.”

It’s important to note that experiencing trauma does not necessarily mean a person will perpetrate abuse or pass on their trauma. In fact, many people will avoid negative interactions as adults as opposed to replicating those interactions.

Indirect trauma cycling

Sometimes, children learn unhealthy patterns indirectly through interacting with or observing family members.

For example, if your parents experienced trauma they may tend to avoid distress and conflict altogether. They may relate to each other in passive or passive-aggressive ways. They may have trouble asserting their needs constructively or directly problem-solving. Those methods of coping and interacting are then modeled to their children.

If unhealthy communication patterns were typical for you while growing up, it might take intentional effort to learn to communicate in a healthier way.

Intergenerational trauma can also happen at a systemic or institutional level. Sharnell Myles PsyD, psychotherapist and vice president of Embark Behavioral Health, says this is often the case for community-based violence.

The cycle of violence in communities can be generations long. It happens because of things outside a person’s control, like:

  • poverty
  • racism
  • a harmful police presence

Whether you’re navigating the emotional impact of your parents’ trauma or processing your own, breaking the trauma cycle can be challenging.

But it’s possible to heal and move forward.

1. Acknowledge the trauma

According to Myles, one of the main reasons for intergenerational trauma is that people don’t talk about it. And trauma often goes unresolved.

Lurie says that acknowledging that traumatic events or adverse childhood experiences have impacted you is a helpful first step to healing.

This might look like acknowledging that you’ve experienced something difficult and that you may be hurting others because of it.

“For many, it can be difficult to confront these experiences or consider the effects,” Lurie says. Addressing the trauma cycle can be challenging because it requires vulnerability. Also, the trauma and its impact aren’t always obvious.

“Taking the time and doing the work to honestly and vulnerably process the trauma can allow one to recover, to learn to respond to stressors instead of reacting, and to create a new narrative.”

2. Consider reaching out to a professional

Consider connecting with a mental health professional to help you process your trauma and work on healing. There are various types of therapy for trauma and various treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some types of therapy are especially effective for childhood trauma or complex trauma, such as cognitive-behavioral methods and dialectical behavior therapy.

Many difficulties can come from intergenerational trauma that may not be trauma themselves, such as maladaptive ways of coping with stress. Various therapies can also help with these issues, including:

A trained mental health professional has the tools to support you through:

  • processing the trauma
  • unpacking the impact of trauma
  • helping you learn to respond to situations in a healthy way

Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.

3. Try connecting with supportive people

You don’t have to go through this process alone.

It’s common for people who have experienced abuse or trauma to gravitate toward familiar unhealthy relationship patterns.

For example, you might engage with people who often raise their voices to communicate because you’re used to this kind of interaction. But being around people who reinforce the trauma you’ve experienced can make healing more difficult.

Instead, you may find it helpful to cultivate an inner circle full of folks who want to support you in your healing and learning process. You might try finding people who are willing to listen calmly as you discuss something difficult you experienced, or when you describe difficult family interactions growing up.

Once you better understand your own patterns, you’ll likely find it easier to create a social circle that lifts you up instead of bringing you down.

Addressing and healing from intergenerational trauma is hard emotional work — and barriers to access can make it even harder to heal.

Lurie explains that systems of oppression can make it difficult to break cycles of trauma and perpetuate them.

“Poverty, inequity, and racism can make it impossible to access support or to even have the space to see and process one’s trauma,” says Lurie.

Having an emotionally supportive space to center your mental health and healing can be helpful. And that’s not always possible for everyone. But while barriers to access exist, there are options for support.

For example, if you’re considering reaching out to a mental health professional but worry about affordability, you may want to try:

  • asking about sliding scale payment options
  • looking into professionals who offer discounted rates
  • asking about shorter therapy sessions
  • looking into community-based mental health resources
  • online therapy
  • mental health programs available through your workplace
  • online and in-person support groups

During this process and beyond, it can help to give yourself space to feel what you’re feeling without judgment and prioritize what makes you feel good.

Try to remember that the cycle of intergenerational trauma isn’t your fault. The trauma you have experienced isn’t your fault. But choosing to end the cycle and find a way to heal is within your control.