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Breaking Trauma Cycles

Last updated August 2021

Ancestral Gifts

We inherit many things from our parents, from their parents, and from generations going back to time immemorial. Often, when we consider the things we inherited from our relatives, we think about physical traits. “She has her mother’s eyes. He has his father’s smile. They have their grandparent’s hands.” But the truth is that we inherit so much more than physical aspects. We inherit thoughts, perspectives, beliefs, and traditions.

From the day each of us comes into this world, we begin to learn about our culture through observing those caring for us. Our teachers, parents, and other family members begin passing information on to us through their words, actions, and attitudes. Some of this is intentionally taught to us, through for example, instructions about our dances, stories, or even the alphabet. Some of this is taught to us unintentionally, for example through seeing how those around us act when they are happy, how they process feelings of sadness, or even what they do when they’re angry. Ways of responding to trauma, how to heal from trauma, and how to be resilient in the face of challenges can also be passed down from one generation to the next.

What are negative family cycles and why do they exist?

Family cycles are patterns of behavior that are passed down from one generation to the next. For Indigenous people, some family cycles have been impacted by historical and intergenerational trauma. For example, in response to historical trauma, some of our relatives learned to cope in ways that were not always healthy or useful. Some coped with challenges by misusing substances, like alcohol and drugs. Others may have closed off from loved ones and their culture or used violence or lateral violence to process difficult feelings. These coping mechanisms unintentionally led to the creation of negative family cycles, or patterns of trauma, that we can still see happening today.

How do we break negative family cycles?

Always remember that in spite of everything our ancestors went through, they were able to endure and preserve our culture for future generations to experience. You are everything your ancestors had ever dreamed of, and more. Here are some things to consider if you want to break unhealthy family cycles:

You are part of a new generation of Indigenous people that are self-aware of what cycles may run in your family. Engaging in self-reflection about your own family cycles is an important first step to healing and breaking unhealthy cycles.

Ask yourself:

What unhealthy cycles run in my family?

How do they relate to historical and intergenerational trauma?

What strengths (or positive family cycles) run in my family?

How have my relatives and my culture taught me to be more resilient?

Sometimes asking these question can bring up tough emotions. Make sure to practice self-care while you are exploring these topics. And always speak with a counselor, trusted friend or relative, if you need some support.

In order to understand why unhealthy cycles exist, it may help to learn more about how they came to be. Learning more about what trauma is, as well as historical and intergenerational trauma will help you expand your knowledge and prepare you to learn more. Next, learning about different trauma responses can help you consider how and why some people react to certain situations in different ways. Finally, taking the steps to learn how to heal from trauma can support you in breaking unhealthy family cycles.

Any healthy relationship, whether it is with a parent, a significant other, a teacher, or yourself will require boundaries. After identifying some potentially unhealthy family cycles that you want to change, setting boundaries may help guide you towards a healthier future. Also, learning how to protect your peace is important.

Connect with your culture through the various traditions, customs, practices, and people in your community. Consider Indigenizing your movement, deepening your spiritual connection, speaking with your Elders and other trusted adults, and continuing to learn about your past. Pass your learning and knowledge on to your friends, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Talk to your family about your desire to break certain cycles. You may find support in ways and from people you did not expect. Seek out others who share your same desire to break unhealthy cycles and nurture the resilient aspects of themselves.   

Additional Resources:

This page was informed with information from Survivors to Thrivers and Jody Michelle’s article on Your Generational Legacy: How to Break Destructive Patterns.

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