By Aneesha Perkins & Charmain Jackman
The concept of generational patterns, behaviors that are passed from one generation to another, has been circulating on the internet lately and for good reason. How our ancestors navigated life and communicated with each other can actually play a significant role in how we cope with our lives and interact with others. It is now well-documented that we pass on trauma and resilience through our genes, so understanding these ancestral patterns can give us an advantage in navigating our lives.
Check out 4 ways to explore the generational patterns in your family:
1. Identify Relationship Patterns in your Family – Have you heard of a genogram? A genogram is a great way to visually document your families’ relationships with each other, the relationship status of family members (e.g.,conflicts, marriages, separations, & deaths), medical history, significant life events, traumatic experiences, and so much more! If you are interested in creating a genogram for your family, there are a number of websites that offer software.
In addition, it will be helpful to interview family members, especially the elders in your family. Find a storyteller in your family or connect with a few family members to gather the necessary information that will help you to create your own family genogram. Some people may be very open and others may not want to bring up family conflicts. Be patient, be kind, and listen intently!!
Tapping into historical records can be another way to obtain this information. The Museum of African American History also has a program that helps African Americans track family members. The first step to exploring patterns is developing an awareness of what they are.
2. Ask about Family Challenges or Traumas – Perhaps you have noticed unhealthy patterns that you currently possess that are similar to ways that other family members also exhibit. Understanding the story behind these patterns is usually extremely helpful and provides clarity in why people behave the way that they do. Conversations regarding tough subjects centered on family history could be intimidating to discuss, but it could also be empowering for you and the next generation to adapt new ways of relating with others.
Find the talker in the family: Try to identify a family member who is open to discussing these hard topics. Be honest about the reasons you want to better understand the family dynamics. If you plan to create a genogram or to share the information publicly, be upfront about that. Honesty begets honesty.
Bond Over Food – Who does not love to eat and talk over a delicious meal? Ask your family if they would be open to sharing more information about your family history while breaking bread together. Remember, it may be helpful to start with lighter subjects and perhaps have a few food dates so that no one feels pressured to share possibly overwhelming information in one sitting.
3. Gather Details about Your Family’s Strengths – What are your family’s generational strengths? While it is valuable to learn about the challenging patterns or traumatic experiences, it is equally as important to understand your family’s generational strengths. Set aside some time to connect with some family members and ask them about their strengths that have really made a difference in their lives. Take some time to document the conversation and outline the strengths so you can begin building a living document for the generations that will follow you. If your relatives are open to you recording the conversation, with their permission, create a digital video or audio series. Alternatively, you can write down your findings in a journal or create a journal series. Some people have also written books based on their research-- which can be used for the family only or can be published as a family memoir such as Cane River.
4. Attend Family Therapy – Black families have experienced trauma starting from the beginning of time, and it may not be easy to discuss or even repeat those experiences out loud. If you find that learning about generational patterns is difficult for you, ask your family member(s) if they would consider going to therapy together for additional support. It can be beneficial to have space with a trained professional that can walk you both through difficult conversations, all while keeping your sensitive matters confidential. Check out Innopsych’s therapist of the color directory here: https://www.innopsych.com/findatherapist
As we continue to celebrate BIPOC Mental Health Month, consider taking the following steps to understand the generational patterns that run in your family. The more you know, the more you can grow and help yourself and future generations!
Aneesha Perkins, M.A., is a fourth-year Clinical Psychology doctoral candidate at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology (TCSPP). She obtained her Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychology from Trinity Christian College and a Master’s in Clinical Psychology degree from TCSPP in Washington, D.C. She is a writer, speaker, and creative who enjoys helping women find wholeness and healing. Her clinical interests include stress management, self-care, generational patterns, and trauma.