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Breaking the silence surrounding intergenerational trauma

On the afternoon of November 12, the DLSU-Dasmariñas Psychology Society held the third iteration of its “BTS: Break the Silence” series of webinars. As a follow-up to the first two webinars, which tackled the role of parents in supporting their children’s mental health, the recent one focused on intergenerational trauma.

In her opening remarks, Rosario N. Pareja, director of Lasallian Community Development Center, expressed her enthusiasm for the event’s goal to educate parents and students about intergenerational trauma and recovery. “Healing happens only when members pick up and work through any hurt, pain, or abuse from the past. I know that our speakers will be discussing this in a while,” Pareja said.

Perils in parenting

As the first speaker, Dr. Josefina Madrid, part-time faculty at DLSU-D, spoke about mental health stigma and trauma. He described how discrimination can prevent those with trauma from seeking help, thus trapping them in a cycle of mental illnesses. She also spoke about the four parenting styles and how they influence children: authoritative parenting, wherein parents encourage children to be responsible and consider the reasons behind rules enforced in the household; authoritarian parenting, wherein parents expect absolute obedience while relying on the threat of punishment; permissive parenting, wherein parents are responsive and warm but also reluctant to enforce rules; and uninvolved parenting, wherein parents offer little emotional support and fail to enforce standards of conduct.

Madrid prefaced the next section of her presentation by stating that parenting style is only one of many factors that influence a child’s development. According to her, elements such as genetics, prenatal conditions, and peer groups also play a big role. However, the family is the first social group that children come into contact with, making parenting an integral factor. Children raised by authoritative parenting are often well-adjusted and academically successful, whereas those raised by authoritarian parenting become increasingly aggressive and are at risk of anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem. Meanwhile, permissive parenting leads children to a middle ground between authoritative and authoritarian parenting. Children who experienced uninvolved parents growing up are the worst off in all aspects of well-being, with most juvenile offenders coming from similar households.

After describing emotional abuse, which is non-physical behavior meant to control, isolate, frighten, and diminish another person’s sense of self, Madrid concluded with the process of healing from abuse. She emphasized that the first step—acknowledging that the abuse had occurred—is the most important. This is followed by changing habitual negative thinking patterns, and then by practicing self-care, which includes seeking help. Two effective modes of help are group therapy, which can dispel shame and isolation resulting from the abuse, and emotional abuse therapy with the aim to restore the victiman abuse survivor’s sense of self.

Growth through generations

In the next talk, Mike Jansen Pacifico, co-founder and psychologist at Mandala Psychological Services, expounded on intergenerational trauma, defining it as “an emotional response to an event that a person finds stressful” such as an accident or a disorder. Individuals can experience trauma in four ways: directly experiencing a traumatic event, witnessing it, learning of it happening to close family or friends, and repeated or extreme exposure to harsh details or depictions of it. “Most of us, if not all, have experienced trauma once in our lifetime,” Pacifico expressed, “What’s important is that if you experience trauma and you did not do something about it, this could lead to long-term effects on your wellbeing.”

He then defined intergenerational trauma, also called trans- or multigenerational trauma, as trauma initially experienced by past generations, which then elicits a traumatic response in future generations despite them never experiencing the initial event. Such events could have been experienced at the level of the individual level, multiple members of the family, or the larger community. Pacifico cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a traumatic event affecting all levels, caused by the prolonged “pandemic way of life” being one full of uncertainty, fear, and loss. He also expressed concern about how pandemic-linked trauma may be transmitted to future generations. 

This transmission happens in two ways: biological and social. Biological transmission happens when parents transmit inborn genetic vulnerabilities, which are then triggered by a traumatic experience. Social transmission occurs when an individual’s parenting style becomes impaired by their own trauma. The transmission then manifests in children because of modeling, wherein children mimic their parents’ behavior. The parent-child relationship also has an impact, serving basis for how the child views other relationships they may form in the future; a poor relationship with the parent puts the child’s future relationships at risk. 

The cyclical nature of intergenerational trauma stems from this transmission of trauma, as families with unresolved trauma continue to pass on maladaptive coping strategies and parenting styles to future generations. However, the cycle can be broken in four ways: open communication between parent and child about the trauma and how to cope, recognition and correction of behavioral patterns that point to trauma response, cultivation of empathy and compassion for family struggles, and professional help. Pacifico summed up these four ways as being the transmission of resilience. “If trauma can be transmitted, so can resilience. If you’re going to take care of yourself [now], and you build resilience, you can protect future generations,” he concluded. 

Setting free

After a Q&A portion of the session, wherein Madrid and Pacific jointly advocated for planned, gradual communication of issues with parents and the need to stay committed to treatment and self-care, Dr. Marnon Regis gave thanks to the event organizers, partners, and audience in his closing remarks. He compared parenting to flying a kite, which involves pulling at the thread and loosening hold on it in equal measure for the kite to fly freely. 

Reiterating the focus of the event and the Break the Silence webinar series as a whole, Regis ended with a quote from Shefali Tsabary: “Parents who engage in conscious parenting understand the power of being present, being mindful to take the time to build connection, understanding that this is the bedrock of all later self-worth, self-esteem, and self-actualization.”

By Bea Condes

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