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How to Break Intergenerational Cycles

As a parent, you can undo intergenerational relational patterns.

Key points

  • Inherited relational patterns include how we view relationships and how we treat others and behave in those relationships.
  • Identifying relational patterns you bring to your current family is the first step in choosing to break their hold on you.
  • You and your partner can work together to make sure the relational patterns you pass on to your kids are in line with your goals and values.

When I was 11, our family moved to another state in the middle of the school year. While I was excited about going to a bigger city, I was also devastated about leaving my friends, school, and community. A complex set of emotions poured through me. That, in and of itself, wasn’t a problem. The problem was the way my family dealt—or more accurately, often didn’t deal—with emotions.

It was okay in our house to talk about positive emotions, but we shied away from darker feelings. So when I was conflicted and confused about our move, and really needed someone to talk to, I had nowhere to turn. I was left alone with my feelings—which, of course, made them more intense. On top of that, I felt shame for even having feelings in the first place.

This dynamic set up a potential intergenerational relationship pattern for me. Because my own parents regarded emotions as undesirable, I was predisposed to do the same when I became a parent. My parents themselves weren’t raised in families that discussed feelings, so this mode of relationship goes back generations. No one learned how to talk about and be with feelings in ways that encourage intimacy and connection.

My husband and I made a conscious effort to break this pattern.

Recently we expanded our family to include a baby girl. While our five-year-old son is grateful and tickled to have a sister, he also has other feelings: sadness, jealousy, and anger. This has been a perfect time to practice changing intergenerational relational patterns. Instead of leaving our son to feel alone and ashamed with his feelings, my husband and I have done our best to make room to witness and understand all of his feelings about our family’s expansion.

Source: PeopleImages/Shutterstock

Breaking the Cycle

Inherited relational patterns include how we view relationships, what value we assign to them, and, consequently, how we treat others and behave in those relationships. Every family has a rule book, a way of being that is considered normal for that family. It’s usually an unsaid collection of expectations (dos and don’ts) about how family members are supposed to interact and how they should express their enjoyment or displeasure with one another. These rules typically feel like they’re set in stone—all the more so because they’re unspoken.

Parenting is a dynamic opportunity to break intergenerational cycles and inherited relational patterns. As a parent, you can heal your own childhood wounds by offering your kids the kind of care, attunement, and emotional maturity your own parents may have struggled to offer you. You can see in real-time a different legacy beginning to live and breathe in your kids. And if your parents or other family members see you breaking the cycle, they may be motivated to join you.

Identify Your Inherited Relational Patterns

I’ve found the best place to begin breaking the cycle is to look closely at how your first family (or family of origin) treated relationships. By reflecting, sifting through memories, and examining experiences you had growing up, you can identify your inherited relational patterns. Once you have a sense of where you came from and how it affected you, you’ll be in a better position to make any desired changes.

Think about your family’s rule book and specifically the rules about relationships. Did your family put relationships with one another first and make everything else secondary? Or did they place other things ahead of the quality of relationships? For example, some families place the following ahead of relationships: career, performance, appearances, preserving the peace, the comfort of one family member.

See if you can come up with a list of summary statements that encapsulate the rules that determined relational patterns in your first family. Topics to consider include the following:

  • How and when emotions were expressed
  • What activities were shared
  • Which topics were okay to talk about and which weren’t
  • What was valued and what was not
  • Who was included or excluded

What Would You Like to Change From the Rule Book?

Now consider how each of the patterns you just came up with is affecting your current family life. You may also identify patterns happening now that are different from those of your first family.

You may see some current patterns you like and others you don’t. For example, you might like that your family members always make a point of sharing vacation time once a year. But you may not like the rule in your family that apologies are rarely necessary.

Go through each of your statements and ask yourself honestly:

  • Is it a pattern I like? Or don’t like?
  • Have I carried this pattern from my first family into my current family?
  • If this pattern hasn’t manifested in my current family yet, could it do so in the future?
  • Is it a pattern I want to change?

Discuss New Relationship Goals With Your Partner

Finally, I suggest getting with your partner and discussing the impact of your respective relational patterns on your current family. Ideally, your partner will have also done the individual work you’ve just done about their own family of origin.

Note that this exercise can bring up pain or trauma that needs to be felt and to heal. If your family struggled with witnessing feelings, this is an opportunity for you to change. Make sure you and your partner witness your own and each other’s feelings with care, tenderness, and empathy.

After you have each shared your lists, consider which patterns are manifesting in your current family. Also consider which might manifest, and under what conditions.

Identify any patterns that either one or both of you would prefer not to have. Come up with a plan to monitor these patterns and discuss how you can overcome them. Often, life will surprise you and you may tumble into a pattern you never noticed before. Offer grace for yourself as you sift through any patterns you’d like to transform.

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