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5 Ways to Break a Cycle of Family Trauma

4. Find space for self-compassion every day.

Key points

  • Due to their history of normalizing unhealthy behaviors, trauma survivors struggle to know what is normal, what is not, and how to change.
  • Children who grew up with family trauma may have normalized inappropriate interactions and may not recognize unhealthy patterns as adults.
  • If one does not do the work of growth, these behavior patterns will continue long into adulthood.
art by Kaytee Gillis
Take your story one page at a time.
Source: art by Kaytee Gillis

Children who grew up in abusive homes often continue the unhealthy patterns and behaviors they learned in childhood for many years after leaving home.

When it is the only thing we know, there is no such thing as "dysfunctional." only our normal. It often is not until adulthood, when people begin to notice unhealthy patterns that manifest in romantic and social relationships, that many even begin to wonder, "Is this normal?" or "Why does this keep happening to me?"

As much as we avoid doing so, many people repeat the unhealthy behaviors they learned in childhood in their families and social circles long into adulthood, not knowing that they are unhealthy until something forces them to question their behaviors or experiences. "Why do I always choose people who use me?" and "Why am I always attracted to abusive men?" are the types of questions that lead clients to seek therapy to begin doing the work to break the cycle.

"I do not want to do these things to my children" is a common assertion from people who recognize that their experiences were unfair. However, there's a strong chance that your caregivers lamented in the same way before having their children. We all set out with the intention of doing better than our own experiences, but doing the work to unlearn years of unhealthy behavior patterns takes time and dedication. It is often more difficult to take the time to unlearn bad coping skills than to continue with what we know.

These five tips can help you in your journey toward healing and breaking the patterns of unhealthy behaviors that stem from trauma:

1. Acknowledge that what happened to you was traumatic.

This is one of the most difficult steps but the most essential. If you do not admit what happened, the trauma does not have a place to land, and it remains swimming around in your subconscious. This is not about casting blame on any person or group of people; it is simply about accepting your truth and what happened to you.

Many people choose to admit it to themselves through journaling, in therapy, or with a partner, spiritual guide, or close friend. You do not need to confront your caregivers to begin your healing journey. If they have a history of dismissing your feelings, their continued denial of your experience will add to the trauma you endured. Shame comes when our experiences are denied or ignored, which is one of the biggest barriers to seeking help.

2. Find support to do the inner work.

The number-one way to grow is to work at it. It's hard. It's painful. Many people choose to seek a therapist if the work is difficult or triggering, but this is not always necessary. Many have found support in books, peer support groups, spirituality, journaling, and self-reflecting. The key is to maintain consistency with space for growth.

3. Take inventory of your areas for growth.

This is not a list of imperfections for you to fix, but rather a list of areas that you know you could work on to improve your self-esteem, as well as your relationships. This takes self-awareness and strength, as it is not easy to look at our shortcomings.

Take a look at patterns of behaviors that repeat throughout your relationships, both platonic and romantic. Perhaps you find that you are easily irritable and want to change this. Or maybe you notice that you shut down and reject others. These are not things that will change overnight but could be worked on along your growth journey.

4. Find space for self-compassion every day.

Children who grew up in traumatic environments rarely were awarded compassion and space to self-reflect. Therefore, this can feel uncomfortable at first. Finding enjoyment in our bodies through exercise, yoga, or meditation can feel awkward to a person who was taught that their body is not special or treasured.

Many children who grew up in a chaotic environment only learned to love their bodies with unhealthy food, drugs, or other forms of self-destruction. Slowly replace some of these unhealthy habits while increasing the amount of time showing self-love and compassion.

5. Be more open to conversations with loved ones to hold yourself accountable.

This is an area that we all can improve in, as it is never easy to listen to how we have impacted or even hurt others. Growing up in families where healthy communication and empathy are not shown, children learn quickly that these types of conversations are threatening or unsafe. They then may grow up to be adults who avoid difficult conversations with others due to the discomfort they bring.

I recommend telling loved ones, "I am working on breaking the cycle of some bad behaviors I learned. I am trying to be more open to learning and doing better." This does not put the responsibility for growth on the listener but instead tells them that you are working on being a safer person with whom to have these difficult conversations.

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