My son is a teenager and has been moodier lately, skipping school, hanging with the wrong crowd, and smoking pot daily. He says it helps him calm down, cope with his anxiety, and concentrate. I did the same thing when I was his age, only I ended up in and out of juvenile detention and residential treatment facilities, which didn’t help me. I was also abused as a child, and my parents didn’t protect me the way I protect my son. I love my son; he is a great kid, and I have done my best to protect and provide for him. I just didn’t see ‘this’ coming. I thought by protecting him from any form of abuse, he would be safe and not travel down the same path I did. Thankfully, he is now in therapy and seeing a mental health provider. However, I struggle as a parent: Why did this happen to my son? Why couldn’t I protect him?
You are self-aware and intentional as a parent to be there for your son in ways that you needed when you were his age. Knowledge and self-awareness are the first steps towards healing and taking charge of your health journey, ultimately trickling down to your son and the next generation. While this article provides general information and is not medical advice, consult with a trained mental health professional for your and your son’s specific needs.
We now know that newborns don’t come into the world with a “clean slate.” They not only inherit the genes from their parents, but they also inherit what we call epigenetics. Epigenetics refer to how genes may or not be expressed.
A study done in mice that found a link between the intergenerational effects of trauma and scent. The researchers blew a chemical that is the cherry blossom scent into the cages of adult male mice while zapping their feet with an electric current at the same time. The mice then associate the smells of cherry blossom with pain. When the offspring of these male mice smelled the scent of cherry blossom, they became more nervous and jumpier compared to other pups whose fathers weren’t conditioned to fear it. The grand pups of the traumatized pups also showed heightened sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent only.
The sensitivity to cherry blossom scent was connected to epigenetic changes in the fathers’ sperm DNA. The pups’ brains had a more significant number of neurons that detect the cherry blossom scent. A greater sensitivity to cherry blossom was passed down from parent mice to pups.
Impact of Transgenerational Trauma
What researchers learned from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) is that childhood trauma, chronic diseases, and emotional and social problems were linked. This means that children who experienced at least one event on the ACE questionnaire were more likely to struggle with chronic diseases as adults, such as diabetes, obesity, lung cancer, autoimmune disease, depression, and substance abuse.
Neuroplasticity and Resilience
The brain cells can continue to grow and make a new connection (synapsis) when you challenge your brain to learn and cultivate new skills. We call that neuroplasticity, and that is where resiliency comes from. This is also known as “Post Traumatic Growth,” as the brain is still able to grow, and change provided the right conditions. Below are some tips you can do to help set your brain cells to recovery and growth:
Positive Childhood Experiences
Research found an association between positive childhood experiences and adult mental and relationship health, regardless of what the ACE score was. To create your positive childhood experiences inventory, ask yourself the following questions: how often during your childhood:
Did you feel able to talk to your family about your feelings?
Did you feel your family stood by you during difficult times?
Did you enjoy participation in community traditions?
Did you feel a sense of belonging in school or faith community?
Did you feel supported by friends?
Did you have at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in you?
Did you feel safe and protected by an adult in your home?
Studies have found that learning mindfulness practices help increase distress tolerance and resiliency, and low-stress hormones. You can work with a therapist to learn these skills and teach them to your son. There is also the Center for Mindfulness Self Compassion that has online resources.
People with trauma tend to move their bodies less, which worsens their medical conditions and physical health. Researchers have found that exercise helps with depression, and anxiety and promotes better self-esteem. The endorphins your body releases help you feel better, and with feeling better, you are more likely to continue to engage in activities that bring you joy and a general sense of well-being.
Engaging with Art
Researchers have found that engaging with any form of art helps your being to access its creativity and inner wisdom to help you heal. You don’t have to be an artist to engage in art. The act of engaging with a creative process is what matters!
Cultivating a Sense of Purpose and Meaning
The trauma you, and your ancestors, have experienced is unfortunate. However, these experiences do not have to define you. With the help of journaling or a therapist, you can reflect on what lessons you have learned from it, what you want to do with your life, and how you want to live it.
Social Support and Spiritual Community
You may consider finding a support group, depending on what you are interested in and what your needs are. You may also consider exploring spiritual practices and community. For example, your source of support and community may be your child’s classmates’ parents or other people in recovery.
By Dr. Abu Ata, a board-certified holistic trauma-informed psychiatrist and family medicine physician. She is in private practice and can be found at www.nesrinabuatamd.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Abu Ata believes in holistic care that integrates the mind, body, and spirit. In addition to offering lifestyle interventions, mindfulness-based psychotherapy, and psychopharmacology, she also offers ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.