How to Break the Cycle of a Traumatic Childhood

When you hear the term “traumatic childhood,” experiences like physical abuse or undergoing a terrible loss as a kid likely come to mind. But childhood trauma isn’t just physical. Growing up in a dysfunctional family where toxic behaviors were considered the norm can also cause us trauma as children – which manifests into adulthood.

Many people who grew up in an unhealthy family environment as children find themselves repeating these same patterns as adults. Thankfully, with therapy becoming more mainstream and accepted, many people seek to unpack the generational trauma from their childhood to do better for the generation of children they’re raising.

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Known as cycle breakers, these individuals are working to identify the traits and behaviors they grew up with – many of which have been passed down in their own families – and seek to rectify them in the present.

This article will examine the cycle of traumatic childhoods and how to break the cycle of trauma.

What Is a Cycle Breaker?

loving father daughter

As children, we absorb how our caretakers react to everything. How they respond in stressful situations, how they show emotion, how they treat others, and how they give or withhold love and affection. Because these behaviors are learned at such a young age, they become part of us so much so that we often chalk them up to being part of our personality.

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For example, if you have difficulty expressing emotions, you may say you just aren’t that emotional. Upon further examination, you may find that you learned this behavior from a parent who did the same and learned it from one of their parents.

Cycle breakers dedicate themselves to taking the time to unpack the difference between a personality trait and a learned behavior that has been passed down through their families and seeks to change the behavior so that it does not continue to be passed through their lineage.

Examples of Family Patterns

angry man

The first step in breaking the cycle starts with identifying family patterns that continue to show up in each generation. Here are a few common examples of behavior and patterns that may have been passed down through the family lineage.

Issues handling big emotions. How your caregivers handle anger, sadness and stress impact how you’ll manage these difficult emotions as an adult. If you grew up in a family where you walked around on eggshells because your parents were quick to anger, you might find yourself dealing with anger that same way as an adult. Conversely, suppose your home was devoid of emotions, even after periods of extreme grief such as the loss of a family member. In that case, you may also find yourself sweeping your feelings under the rug and keeping them to yourself.

Addiction and substance abuse. Children of addicts may not necessarily turn to excessive drugs or alcohol use in adulthood. However, growing up with an addicted parent can develop a mistrust for authority figures or exhibit people-pleasing behaviors that stem from seeking approval from other adults outside their childhood homes.

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Prioritizing achievement over everything. This may be a learned behavior from watching parents prioritize their careers over their mental and physical well-being. This can also be something that parents expected from their children, discounting a child’s happiness or personal passions to push them to pursue academic endeavors that would earn them high salaries or accolades.

Physical punishment. Though there’s plenty of research to prove that physical discipline is ineffective and can be harmful, generation after generation of parents choose this discipline because it’s what they’ve learned.

Disordered eating habits. These habits can be more severe, like having a parent with an eating disorder or growing up in a household where body shaming and dieting were prevalent and enforced on children at a young age.

How to Be a Cycle Breaker

Diverse group of people standing in a huddle during therapy session

The first step to becoming a cycle breaker is identifying the habits learned in childhood that you want to change. Once you know what you want to work on, here are a few steps to break the cycle.

Evaluate childhood experiences

Once you’ve identified the behavior, do a deep dive into how this experience impacted you as a child and how it’s showing up for you currently. A few great questions to start with can be:

How did this family pattern benefit my caregivers? Though you’ve determined that the behavior is not currently positively serving you, understanding why the behavior occurred in the first place can be helpful for your healing process. For example, your family history includes generational trauma where a family member was involved in a war or genocide. This family member may have cut off and suppressed their emotions to survive and cope.

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In what ways was this family pattern harmful? Reflect on your own experiences with this behavior and how it negatively impacted you. Then apply it to your present situation and how others in your family may be affected if this pattern continues.

How did it get passed on through generations? Tracking the pattern of behavior to see how it was passed on can help you break the cycle in your current family relationships.

Work Toward Making Peace With the Patterns

man looks in mirror

Healing the wounds left from negative family patterns and behaviors is a process. One way to start moving in this direction is to ask reflective questions that allow you to forgive those from whom you learned these behaviors. Ask yourself:

How can I provide what I did not receive from my own family? This is powerful to keep in mind as you work to start shifting patterns and remember why this work is important.

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How will I handle my emotions when this pattern resurfaces? Determining new coping mechanisms for the behavior you want to change is essential for cycle breaking.

How can I forgive my family? This one is hardest, as many cycle breakers find that their family members get defensive and deny any wrongdoings. Your healing can’t depend on someone else’s apology, so finding a path toward forgiveness for the things your family could not provide for you is important.

Adopting New Patterns, Changing the World

mom, dad, and 3 kids in a field

This is the final step in cycle breaking – and one of the most challenging. As you move toward establishing new family patterns, identify what skills you may need to learn to do so. For example, if you’re deciding to break the pattern of physical punishments for children, it can be valuable to work with a child psychologist or research more effective ways to discipline children that are not physical. It’s also important to plan for setbacks to happen.

Breaking the cycle is a process. It takes time to unlearn old patterns and establish new ones. Cycle breakers have an incredibly hard road ahead of them – but once they succeed, their hard work will benefit the generations to come.


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