There has been considerable debate in the field of psychology over the years regarding whether nature – the traits we’re born with – or nurture – what we experience in our lives – play a stronger role in the way we process and express our feelings.
Research on epigenetics – the impact of genetics on our psychological functioning – suggests nature and nurture are intrinsically connected through family history. Epigenetics says that the way individuals and families behave, think and feel in the present day is influenced by experiences of previous generations.
Family history and therapy
In therapy with individuals, couples and families, historical information is a key piece of information used to address conflict and problematic patterns. In family therapy, according to Ballard, et.al., it is important to “examine the interactions of clients across generations. This can be used “as a mechanism for understanding and explaining current problems … as well as predicting future difficulties.”
Lauren Boone, a therapist at the Viva Center and a school social worker in DC provides insight on this. She says “understanding intergenerational patterns is an essential lens through which to view present dynamics, especially those that lead to discord.” Boone, who also has a degree in ministry, says her interest in the origins of family patterns started with her own family.
“Like many families, we had conflicts over issues that seemed unresolvable,” she explains. “At some point, I began to think there was something unacknowledged or unknown that was keeping us in a state of distress.”
A historical view of trauma
Often family histories are re-enacted, but not discussed. This can perpetuate patterns of functioning. A parent who experienced abuse may feel afraid to let her child venture out of the house. This can result in limited social interactions for the child. The child can then come to view the world as an unsafe place.
“Where trauma has been untreated, what is fairly common is that the untreated trauma in the parent is transmitted through the child through the attachment bond. Also through the messaging about self and the world, safety, and danger.” Stephanie Swann, PhD, LCSW, a private practitioner who owns and operates the Atlanta Mindfulness Institute shares this insight.
Boone explains that transgenerational therapy can be especially relevant for individuals and families from certain communities. Those who have experienced past, as well as lived, experiences with oppression, discrimination, and wide-scale abuse. These communities include African-Americans, Native Americans, Jewish communities and people from countries with long histories of conflict.
Applying a transgenerational therapy lens
- Cultural humility and curiosity – enabling clients to define cultural norms, beliefs and customs associated both with positive identity and painful history.
- Redirection of harmful patterns of communication to more affirming interactions that strengthens family bonds.
- Being open about present day and historical trauma so that children have a context for understanding current family dynamics. and,
- Enabling children to decide how they will incorporate the family history into their own life story.
Boone, who works with children and adults, says “The beauty about engaging in Transgenerational therapy is that you don’t have to wait on family members to start. While many see family therapy as an all or nothing approach, it can be the opposite. The individual can pick apart the recognized patterns they’ve adopted from family of origins. This empowers them to start the conversation with family members in a way that can uncover and answer questions where gaps lie.”
Interested in learning more about our intergenerational approach to working with clients? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more. In addition, you can find a wealth of free resources for support via the Resilient Brain Project.
Lauren Boone, LGSW is a clinician at The Viva Center. She practices on the frameworks of Intersectionality, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and strengths-based counseling. She also is a Social Worker at the District of Colombia Public Charter School.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “Art Therapy as Trauma Treatment: The Power of Nonverbal Expression” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management“