Recognizing and Healing from Generational Trauma
January 2023

Digital Only: Young Adults

Recognizing and Healing from Generational Trauma

Regardless of whatever challenges your family has gone through, good family habits can start with us.

a hand stopping a row of blocks from falling

I am a family history nut. The call of FamilySearch speaks to my heart the same way dark chocolate does—I just can’t stay away.

But as I have dived into my family tree, there is a commonality I see among many ancestors: they all faced extremely difficult challenges.

For example, my maternal great-grandmother lost five of her 11 children before they reached adulthood, lost her home in a fire, and suffered from skin cancer for years until it caused her death when she was only 50.

My maternal grandmother was affected by the grief of losing her mother and siblings at a young age. Severe anxiety prevented her from enjoying a lot of life. She was often afraid, hesitant, and ill. This caused my own mom to grow up feeling somewhat neglected at times.

This influenced her to constantly want to maintain happiness in our home, not leaving a lot of room for negative emotions.

On my dad’s side, my paternal grandfather suffered verbal abuse from his father (who also struggled with substance abuse), so he was prone to anger and violence. My grandfather was also a single parent for a time, which led to my dad being displaced in foster homes as a child. Ultimately, my dad struggled for a long time to build a good relationship with my grandpa and to communicate his emotions effectively.

What Is Generational Trauma?

Why am I telling you these difficult family stories? Well, I recently learned it’s helpful to acknowledge difficulties that occurred in our family’s history. It’s helpful because the effects of challenges in our ancestors’ lives can influence how our current families function in mortality.

Our ancestors may have suffered many types of traumatic events, such as grief, war, abuse, crimes, financial instability, natural disasters, etc. And the effects can show up in later generations of families through common issues:

  • Communication problems

  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms

  • Attachment issues

Or more serious issues, including:

  • Mental health issues

  • Abuse

  • Addiction

When the negative psychological effects of traumatic experiences are transferred from one generation to another, experts call this phenomenon “generational trauma.”1 The purpose of identifying generational trauma isn’t to place blame on an ancestor for your issues. But becoming aware of generational trauma can help us understand some of the influences behind our own unhelpful habits, create new healthy behaviors, and invite peace into our homes.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:

“Just as joys come in families, so can sorrows. No individual is perfect, nor is any family … Yet, with heaven’s help, we can come to understand our family and make peace with each other.

“… The promise … always is that, in and through Jesus Christ, we can become our best story and our families can become happy and forever.”2

Here are a few ways I was able to heal my own heart and family relationships after learning about the generational trauma that affected my family:

Become Aware

Strive to become aware of negative habits in your life. Seek guidance from Heavenly Father. He wants us to rise above the conflicts in our lives, and He is more than ready to help us become “new creature[s]” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Attend the temple, search the scriptures, and consider counseling with Heavenly Father about working with a mental health professional or finding and reading self-help books that can offer helpful perspectives.

In my case, I denied that I had communication problems until I hit a dark point in my life and realized I needed help addressing some of my behavioral and thinking patterns.

So, after seeking guidance from Heavenly Father, I felt prompted to start meeting with a therapist. We put pieces of the puzzle of my heart together and discovered that the sources of many of my behaviors like masking pain with humor, burying emotions, and struggling to communicate effectively could possibly be traced back to a few generations before mine.

Be Brave

At first, I was scared by what this discovery meant for me. How could I possibly change habits that had been ingrained in me and my family? I even started to fear for my future family. Would I pass my issues on to them?

With these thoughts weighing on my mind, I didn’t think I could muster the effort to face these feelings and change these behavior cycles. But the Lord has counseled us to “be not afraid, only believe” (Mark 5:36).

As I prayed, God showed me that if I had a willing heart, He could change my heart and help me alter the behaviors that were preventing me from having healthy relationships and from growing emotionally and spiritually.

Have Hope in Christ

Through trials, we are given a choice to come unto Christ for hope, growth, and healing—whatever that healing may entail.

Ultimately, my healing involved the Savior. With Him, I was able to have difficult yet healing conversations with my family members, to take steps forward, to love more deeply and build greater relationships, to take uncomfortable steps forward, to forgive, and to find hope in the future. Believing in what Jesus Christ could do for me was the first step toward inviting His healing balm into my life through temple worship, prayer, and exercising faith.

As I combined these powerful spiritual tools with therapy and self-help books that helped me develop my communication skills, learn to feel and process my emotions, and understand the underlying reasons behind my behaviors, I have been able to see miraculous results of involving the Savior and Heavenly Father in this journey.

Let Good Things Begin with You

Some of us may struggle with serious repercussions from our family’s past like abuse, addiction, or other traumatic challenges, which can take time, faith, and professional help to heal. But as Elder Patrick Kearon of the Seventy taught, “Courage, patience, and faithful focus on [the Savior]” will help you “let go of your pain and leave it at His feet.”3 Through Him, we can mend bonds, set boundaries, break negative cycles, and build beautiful, charity-filled homes and relationships.

Elder Gong also counseled:

“Genetics and family patterns influence but do not determine us.

“... Learn and acknowledge with gratitude and honesty your family heritage. Celebrate and become the positive and, where needed, humbly do everything possible not to pass on the negative. Let good things begin with you.”4

I am still a work in progress, but I am so grateful for my resilient ancestors and family members who inspire me. I am awed by Heavenly Father and our Savior, who can help us build up the relationships we cherish and endure and grow. Truly, it is through Him that I can help spread goodness in my family and fill our homes with joy.