For more than a year, starting at age 19, "Jesse" suffered from insomnia, chills and a fear that if he fell asleep something terrible might happen. The insomnia forced the college baseball player to drop out of school. Depressed, he sought help from San Francisco therapist Mark Wolynn, who found out that Jesse's uncle had died 30 years ago of hypothermia in a blizzard — at age 19.
Wolynn, who specializes in family trauma, was not surprised at the similarities between Jesse's problems and the conditions that led to his uncle's death decades ago. He calls it an "epigenetic inheritance," the effects of stress and trauma that can be transmitted genetically from one generation to another.
Wolynn shares that story of Jesse and other patients he has treated at his Family Constellation Institute in his book, It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.
He suggests that parents, in trying to help a troubled adult child, should look for a link to previous generations. Those family traumas can include anything from premature deaths of parents to abandonment. Sometimes those events are recognized and talked about; other times they are hidden away as family secrets or may not even be known. We chatted with Wolynn about this intergenerational connection.
Why is it important to examine family history for traumatic events?
When we ignore the past, it comes back to haunt us. But when we explore it, we don't have to repeat it. We can break destructive patterns. Sometimes when parents see a child struggling, they question if they did something wrong in raising a child. Unknowingly, they may have passed some trauma forward but can change that by helping to discover a link to the past.
Does that mean looking at ourselves, too?
I tell parents to try to work through their problems so they don't get passed forward. If a child is anxious, for example, it may be because the parent is anxious. Children often mirror to parents what their parents have long ago suppressed.
Beyond ourselves, how far back do we go and how do we start that process?
Generally we go back three generations of family history to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma. That means parents need to shake the family tree and see what falls out. Look for family secrets that are hidden or have been glossed over. You might ask relatives to help, explaining that you need to understand the important events in the family history. Did Grandpa leave his first wife? If he hurt her by leaving, that can set up a dynamic for a trauma that never healed. We can see that generations later with a young adult who can't form lasting intimate relationships.
You suggest drawing a "genogram" to research a family history. How is that done?
Construct a family tree and next to each family member, write down the significant trauma or difficult fates that person experienced. The genogram gives you a visual, tangible experience of the traumatic events that took place in your family, making it easy to understand the connection between these events and the fears and anxieties you or your child have been living with.
And then what?
Once the link to the past has been made, we have to establish a new experience and practice the feeling of that experience by using visualizations, conversations, physical practices and healing sentences. In doing so, we pull attention away from the brain's trauma response centers so that our brains can change. We can break the cycle of inherited family trauma.
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.