Black Millennial Parents Are Leaving a Legacy of Generational Health
Ariel Apparicio's mother always told her that the women in her family were unlucky in a certain way. Apparicio, 31 of Charlotte, North Carolina, watched her mother endure an abusive relationship.
"She was raised to keep the family together at all costs," she says. Her grandmother also experienced abuse in addition to working 12-hour days picking cotton in the fields in Mississippi, like many Southern Black people did in the 1940s. When Apparicio found herself in an abusive long-time relationship, she saw her then 5-year-old daughter's youthful personality change to stressed out and anxious.
"It was important that I did not let my two children go through domestic violence anymore," she says. "I truly had to make a decision—to keep the family together or to be separate and try to maintain and heal."
Intergenerational trauma is an unwanted inheritance. It's the passing down of traumatic events and memories to later generations. The curse of slavery in the U.S. and the continued racial trauma experienced have marked the lives and legacies of Black families. Black Millennial parents like Apparicio are determined, however, to end the cycle of trauma and welcome a new era of parenting.
What is Intergenerational Trauma?
It's been a long time since grade school for Omar Senior, a 34-year-old Westchester, New York-based program manager for a tech company, but his father's reaction over a homework assignment still makes him uneasy.
"If I didn't understand something with the work, my dad would get very frustrated with me and would yell, and I would cry. I was a very sensitive kid growing up, and it never made me feel too confident to ask questions," says Senior. "I felt on my own a lot. Even in my adult life, there's still some lingering sentiments of that—I do feel difficulty asking questions."
Still, he understands that his parents were trying to break cycles, too. They were young when they became parents and emigrated from Jamaica, where Senior points to strained familial relationships. Fear-based parenting was commonplace there because there was a lot to fear. "'You beat your kids so that the police don't do it for you,'" says Senior. "That's something I grew up with and I know my father used to get beatings all the time."
As an adult, he considers what his parents contended with as he and his wife parent their 4-year-old son, Wallace. They are also expecting another child. Perhaps his parents couldn't answer the difficult questions that Senior asked, but Wallace is able to ask whatever he wants, no matter the topic, without judgement. His freedom and curiosity is a privilege earned by his father's patience.
A growing body of research is exploring how exposure to historical and childhood traumas affect children and the generations that follow.
"Intergenerational trauma is a cycle of trauma exposure passed from the generation who initially experienced the traumatic event to their descendants many generations later," says Paul Archibald, DrPH, assistant professor of social work at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. It can manifest as emotional distress, avoidance, overly negative thoughts, engaging in risky behavior, trouble sleeping, and a host of other poor mental health outcomes.
"It can affect those who have never experienced the traumatic event, hence, the children and descendants exhibit signs and symptoms of trauma. Intergenerational trauma produces long-term distress among communities," explains Paul Archibald, DrPH, assistant professor of social work at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. "This goes way beyond our current discussions of adverse childhood experiences. People must come to grips with the reality that individuals are also exposed to adverse community experiences and adverse cultural experiences that span several generations."
The (Brief) History and Science Behind Intergenerational Trauma
New York photojournalist Michael Santiago, 41, and his partner, video producer Macha Beard-Harper, 40, already know how they want to raise their 6-week-old daughter, Solana.
They want her to feel free to make mistakes, free to ask questions and free to express herself. For Santiago, this means allowing an open forum when Solana begins expressing herself, as an antidote to a generational history of suppressing emotions in his family that, he believes, is rooted in the machismo he learned as an Afro-Latino. "We're not supposed to cry. We're not supposed to be emotional. We're not supposed to express how we feel," says Santiago.
For Beard-Harper, who grew up straddling the freedom of her mother's family and the rules of the family she was informally adopted into, patterns like bottling up feelings and spanking are inextricably tied to African American history and passed down within families. "That comes from a long history of African Americans being fearful, rightfully so, of institutions," she says.
American chattel slavery stripped Africans from their families, culture, and identity on the basis that Africans were genetically inferior to white people. The continued oppression of the descendants of enslaved Africans endured for centuries, and racism still persists in different forms. Researcher and social work research professor at Portland State University, Joy DeGruy, Ph.D., introduced the concept of post-traumatic slave syndrome, marked by depression, feelings of hopelessness, and a self-destructive pattern, in 2005 to explain the survival behaviors of Black Americans.
"Multigenerational trauma and oppression coupled with not being afforded the opportunity to access treatment to heal from the multigenerational trauma exposures leads to post-traumatic slave syndrome, which proposed symptoms similar to PTSD," says Dr. Archibald.
Though intergenerational trauma is not specific to any one group or event, Dr. Archibald explains that it is strongly associated with specific group identities and affiliations, such as nationality, religious affiliation, or ethnicity.
It causes symptoms of traumatic stress and stress responses to situations by way of events and exposures that happened to someone from generations ago in a person's family. It's an area still being explored, but the idea that trauma can be passed down almost like eye color or height already has science behind it. Epigenetic research explores how behaviors and environments impact gene expression and reveals that the impact of trauma can be passed down through genes for as many as 14 generations. Put simply, trauma can affect how genes function, and those changes are passed down through DNA.
Firsthand exposure to traumatic events, like in Apparicio's case, also impacts the transmission of trauma from parent to child and likely plays a significant role in intergenerational trauma. How much effect witnessing first-hand traumatic experiences has versus the biological effects of trauma is another question, but it shows up in parenting nonetheless.
What Trauma Response Looks Like in Parenting
Generally, a trauma response might manifest as hypervigilance, anger, suicidal ideation, feelings of isolation, extreme physical responses to stressful situations, irritability, guilt, and even destructive behavior. For parents, unaddressed trauma makes it hard to manage emotions or support children in processing their emotions.
Parents with unaddressed trauma often respond out of proportion to children's behavior due to anxiety and irritability. Painful intrusive thoughts and flashbacks can cause mood swings that leave parents hypervigilant, disconnected, and distrustful from loved ones and children. In fact, generations of parents in Black communities have normalized invalidating kids' emotions. Mariel Buqué, Ph.D., psychologist and intergenerational trauma expert, says practices that suppress the lived experiences and emotions of children can be harmful and be a source of intergenerational trauma.
"When you teach a child that their emotions are not valid, they start developing those ideas later on in life as adults. So the cycle of emotional suppression continues and that can be very harmful to a person's emotional life and mental health," she says. Buqué says despite shifts toward more gentle parenting, expressions like "stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about'' discourage emotional expression and suggest children should be silenced.
When paired with limited comfort, children learn not to depend on their parents—or anyone— for emotional support. Long term, generations of parents and their children may witness and replicate the struggle to bond and maintain healthy communication. It also makes it difficult for those children to develop healthy, secure attachments as adults. Many children of parents with unresolved trauma recreate the pattern and start families with others who inherited unresolved trauma from their caretakers.
More recently, Black communities have started a visible dialogue on the importance of healing and embraced more gentle reflective parenting styles in pursuit of intergenerational healing—or intergenerational health. Buqué says Black parents are still actively defining what intergenerational health looks like for themselves, their families, and their communities. But all of these efforts aim to "prioritize mental health and mental wellness in ourselves and in the people that we love."
She also notes that parents can break harmful patterns by reflecting on what they experienced in their childhoods and using the information as a guide on how to show up better for their children.
Looking Forward and Breaking the Cycle
Apparicio left the relationship and has been in counseling for several years. "I've been diagnosed with PTSD and depressive mood disorder," she says. As part of her journey to healing, she's become an in-hospital advocate for women dealing with domestic violence and trauma. Counseling, she says, has been key to processing her traumas. "We were made to believe that it's OK and that things will get better but never shown how things can get better," she says. Now, she's showing her daughter a different way: leave harmful situations and take care of your mental health.
For artist and podcaster Elise R. Peterson, therapy is an important instrument in the toolkit she uses to move past familial patterns of self-sacrifice. Though, she says she wasn't cognizant of it at the time, looking back, the women in her family gave up everything for the people they loved and, as honorable as that was, it's not something she wants her son, Sargent, 4, to see her do.
"I realized how many sacrifices the women in my family specifically made, in order to be mothers. Whether that was the partners they were with or not with, the careers they chose—all of those pinnacle, definitive, life decisions hinged upon a survival mechanism for taking care of a family versus having the privilege and freedom and the wiggle room to be curious and explore and really live in one's purpose and passion." says Peterson, who co-parents from where she lives in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. "Historically, Black women are the matriarchs and have been looked to to keep things together for everyone. Without moms, things can't run."
After having honest conversations with her mother and aunts, Peterson says she realized how much they regretted in their lives. She "owes it to them" to live life on her own terms. Developing greater emotional intelligence is paramount in doing that. "People tend to squirrel away emotions, look over things and let resentment build up and I really realized I had no conflict resolution skills," says Peterson.
Healing, with the help of therapy, looked like "recognizing, processing, and handling emotions." Peterson says it's an ongoing lesson that is especially important as she raises a Black son. At 4, it means teaching him to recognize how he feels and how to communicate those feelings. It means learning what the building blocks of setting boundaries are and how to respond if those boundaries aren't respected.
It's something that they practice at home.
"It really became important to me, when I was pregnant, to know and prioritize healing because I had so many dreams that would come up, reliving childhood traumatic moments," says Peterson. "So, as cliché as it might be, I really had to tap into that inner child and do a lot of that healing work because I believe that trauma is absolutely passed on. I want my child to be as pure and clear as possible."
Healing, for herself and her son, is both affirming and full of resentment, both burdensome and exciting. "It can be affirming in a certain spiritual journey—maybe I'm not crazy, maybe I'm not just a rebellious family member but I am a free thinker," says Peterson. "And I really want to raise and change the trajectory of my family in that way and really help heal in that way."
After teaching at Girls, Inc. of Alameda County, Beard-Harper says she learned about childhood development, realizing that not only are fear-based solutions ineffective because of the emotions they are rooted in, they're unsuccessful because often children haven't developed enough to respond appropriately. As a result, compliance isn't the result of understanding but panic.
If they could picture Solana's future, her parents would want her to express herself freely and feel deeply supported. "We want to give her agency. We understand that she's a child and want her to be a child. But she's also a part of this family and a human being, so we want her to be her own person," says Santiago.
Beard-Harper takes pride in the legacy they're working to leave not just for their daughter but for the generations to come: "There's something really liberating about being able to break cycles."