As BIPOC Parents, We Need to Talk About Generational Trauma

bipoc parents generational trauma
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This piece is part of a franchise called 'Family Meeting,' where we spoke to parents and child experts about the conversations we need to be having with our BIPOC kids. Because words matter.

It’s no secret that how you were raised shapes your identity as an adult, not to mention impacts how you parent your own children (mom always pushed us to be our best, so of course you do the same with your kids). And while some behaviors (like dad’s killer dance moves) are worth sharing, there are others that are decidedly less beneficial, downright harmful even. When it comes to the latter, many parents are faced with two choices: use and continue the habits they’ve learned from their own families or break away from what they know and forge a new path for the next generation. It’s a dilemma familiar to many parents, but it’s worth noting that this generational trauma is even more of an uphill battle for BIPOC caregivers.

You see, BIPOC parents aren’t just grappling with generational trauma, but also with cultural trauma.

The Intersection of Cultural and Generational Trauma

“Cultural trauma refers to psychological and emotional events that impact a specific group in a way that alters their identity,” explains Divya Kumar, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist specializing in perinatal mental health, trauma and anti-oppression work. Enslavement, genocide, war, forced migration and racism are all examples of cultural trauma. And for BIPOC parents, this shared suffering is intrinsically tied to how we raise our kids.

Our grandparents, their parents and theirs before them were all about survival, often defying the odds to provide a roof over their heads, food on the table and safety for the family. And these experiences are not necessarily something they want to dwell on.

"I’ve seen the negative impacts of this all the time with clients who grew up in homes where their parents and grandparents had suffered and had experienced very difficult events, but never talked about what they had experienced,” says Kumar. “Instead, they had this narrative of ‘We suffered so you don't have to, so you should just be grateful for what you have.’ This leaves no room for anyone to have any negative feelings and stunts all kinds of emotional literacy and expression.”

And while you may not even realize it, your parents’ and grandparents’ experiences can impact how you talk to your own kids. Think: Telling your teen to suck it up and deal with issues happening in school instead of sitting down and talking it out. Or pushing your kid who just got an A- on her test to do better next time. “Many BIPOC parents, who’ve experienced cultural trauma don’t express love to their children in the same way some white parents do,” says Kumar. “Cultural trauma can affect the way parents show love, affection, appreciation and approval to their children.”

There’s also the push for perfection and duty that so many BIPOC parents can relate to. Like say if you’re adamant about your child getting multiple jobs in addition to their schoolwork and raising their siblings but brush off their feelings if they speak up about the workload. As the therapist explains, the inherited thinking is often: ‘We have sacrificed so much so you have everything, so please don’t let your family down,’ or ‘My parents went through [insert traumatic event], so you have nothing to complain about.’

As a parent, of course you want the best for your kid. You want them to grow up in a home where honest communication is welcomed and appreciated. You want them to know that the struggles you went through do not define who they will become. You want them to understand your reasonings and feelings just as much as you take theirs into consideration. So how do you break centuries' worth of conditioning and behavior?

The First Step to Breaking Generational Cycles Is Acknowledging Trauma

Per Dr. Sandra León-Villa, a neuropsychologist specializing in trauma treatments, BIPOC mental health and behavioral disorders, the first step to breaking harmful generational cycles is acknowledging trauma. Because without this step, “we may pass on messages and narratives that are damaging to our children and their ability to cope in healthy ways.” This can start with opening the discussion with your own parents. It’s going to be a hard conversation, but one that can provide valuable insight into their thoughts and decision making.

“If folks can understand their parents’ difficulty showing affection stems from their experience of cultural trauma, it might feel easier to create a different narrative about their parenting,” adds Kumar. “As we do with anyone who’s experienced trauma, it’s important to ask, 'what happened to you?' instead of 'what’s wrong with you?' It gives us insight on why we are feeling or acting this way. It helps us understand that we (and our families) are not broken or damaged, but rather how our experiences have been shaped and impacted by trauma.”

Next, Create Space for Your Own Feelings

It’s totally normal—and healthy—to have multiple conflicting feelings at the same time, experts tell us. (Remember when your toddler went through that phase of wanting to do everything ‘by himself’ while also pretending to be a baby?) We can love and appreciate our parents’ sacrifices, and even be grateful for their choices because it molded us into the people we are today. However, it’s also OK to recognize that not everything they taught you was right. It’s not about pushing away trauma or hammering down on the sufferings. It’s about normalizing and making space for both.

Kumar explains that there’s a difference between saying ‘my parents suffered so that I could have everything, so I have to be grateful for all they did,’ and ‘my parents suffered, did the best they could for me and I’m grateful for that, but I also feel angry at them.’ You can acknowledge your parents’ hard work and acknowledge your feelings about it. In fact, it is this nuanced perspective that will help change the narrative on how we raise and talk to future BIPOC kids.

So, what does this look like in practice? If you come from a culture where trauma has meant putting up barriers, start actively working to dismantle those barriers. “As a young child of the 70s, I was raised with the idea that being a respectful child meant being 'seen and not heard' in the presence of adults. The impact of these phrases often made me feel invisible or that what I had to say wasn't valued," says Dr. Traci Baxley, a cultural and race identity coach, creator of Social Justice Parenting and a Black mom-of-five in Florida. "As a parent, I have intentionally changed the narrative that being polite or mannerable as a child means acquiescing to the will of the adult. Giving my children space to speak their truth and honor their thoughts and opinions (even if they differ from mine) has meant opportunities to boost their self-confidence and self-advocacy."

For young kids, it’s important to give them room to cry and show their emotions—even the unpleasant ones. With older kids, start having open conversations about the way you grew up and find ways to fight against the traumas set in place for generations. Are there ways for your teen to get involved in volunteering and fighting for change? Are there programs for them to feel welcomed and safe? Do they know the people they can go to for help and guidance?

And if you’re really not sure where to start, know that sometimes even a simple “I love you” can go a long way. “There's almost a joke in South Asian families that mothers will say ‘have you eaten’ instead of ‘I love you’,” says Kumar. And sure, it’s important that your kid gets a good meal, but it’s also important that they know how you feel.

There’s Still Work That Needs to Be Done, But It’s a Start

“This current generation has access to information that our parents, grandparents, and ancestors did not have access to, in addition to the fact that most of our parents and grandparents were living in survival mode,” says Dr. León-Villa. “Who benefits from us being in survival mode and staying in our trauma? Systems, white supremacy culture, and the status quo do, but definitely not us.”

While the therapist acknowledges that many BIPOC communities are still in survival mode, parents today have an unprecedented opportunity to “rest, learn and decolonize.” It’s no longer about surviving but living. Parents today can have a peaceful and more collaborative relationship with their children, rather than being a driver of the “do as I say” crowd.

“Often, we think that colonization and enslavement was so long ago and that it doesn’t have an impact on us today. In order to heal, it’s important to understand where our trauma comes from and how it’s maintained. We must understand how maladaptive patterns of behaviors originated with our communities, so that we can disrupt them,” says Dr. Leon-Villa.

The world might’ve changed a bit since our parents and grandparents were growing up, but there’s still a lot of trauma to unpack. There’s still going to be room for understanding and reflecting on it. But if we can start doing the work and setting a good example for our children then we’re on the right track.

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