“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
I remember feeling quite uncomfortable when I read this quote for the first time many years ago. Do I want “each of these people” in me, in my body, my heart, my mind and my soul? Especially as many relationships in our family are far from straight forward, the answer at the time was pretty clear and definite: “Not really if I am being honest, I’d much rather have “me” to myself, I have enough of issues and troubles as it is, I don’t really need anybody else’s on top of that!!!”
But after thinking about it for some time I came to the conclusion, that unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), no matter how much we’d like to pretend that we are an island, we don’t have any choice in the matter. We ARE the continuation of our families, not just our parents, but our grandparents, great grandparents and so on.
I have often been surprised by small observations convincing me that even behavioural traits can be passed on genetically (note: this is just my personal opinion and experience), for example in an instance where grandchildren have never met some of their grandparents, as it is the case with my children. My youngest daughter walks around with her hands joined behind her back, the same way her grandfather on her dad’s side used to walk and nobody else in both of our families. I have often observed character traits and behaviours such as the tone of voice, body posture, the way somebody laughs, sensitivities to smells or tastes etc. in people, reminding me of their parents or grandparents, again some of them would not have spent a large amount of time together.
I catch myself, often in shock, realising the extent of which I display some of the same mannerisms as my mum, without being aware of it much of the time; the way I put my finger over my mouth when I’m thinking, the sound of my laughter, the way I cough… all very mundane, everyday occurrences but a continuation between two generations all the same. The dreaded sentence “She is turning into her mother” comes to mind.
It is a fact that, if we like it or not, we are all affected by, and connected to former generations, both genetically as well as spiritually and there is a myriad of literature out there to illustrate this. I just want to give a couple of examples as I was fascinated by the scientific validation of our connection to former generation’s actual experiences, rather that “just” sharing DNA.
The following study led by Gerlinde Metz of the University of Lethbridge and published in BMC Medicine (https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-014-0121-6) suggests that a family history of stress may have an impact on the regulation of gestational length and maternal and newborn health outcomes in the maternal lineage and may have an effect on up to four generations!
Researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Centre, Emory University, have provided evidence (2013) of “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” – that the environment can affect an individual’s genetics, which can in turn be passed on. This basically means that traumatic experiences change our DNA and this information is then passed on to the next generation. We carry the genetic fallout of our ancestors’ traumatic experiences in our genetic makeup!
On a more direct level, I believe that we all crave good connections to our families, which unfortunately is often a cause of trauma, disappointment and deep sadness and again many problematic family issues are carried forward through generations without being addressed or healed. As a result many of us struggle with the inter-familiar relationships, and the effect this has on both our physical and emotional well-being is far reaching.
I love watching the ITV program “Long Lost Family”, presented by Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, a program often dealing with adoption stories or other circumstances where parents have become separated from their children or the other way around. It strikes me every time how much we will always be our parents’ children and our children’s parents whatever the circumstances. This might sound odd at first glance but think about it: no matter how old we get, we will always be that child, even at the age of 90. Some of the people in the above mentioned program are in their sixties, seventies and eighties, looking for their parents or children and it is both harrowing and heartwarming to watch how much they long to finally reconnect with their “original” and “primal” relationship, to fill that gap and loss they have carried around all of their lives.
We all carry baggage and on some level I find this quite comforting, strange as it may seem. The important thing is that we become aware of this and keep it in mind in relation to our own parenting. I want to include the following passage from my book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”, in which I have included this advice from Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell:
“Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell make it clear in Parenting from the Inside Out that all of us have leftover issues passed on from generation to generation. When we become parents, it is inevitable that our personal unresolved issues come to the forefront and these issues, if not addressed, will influence our parenting negatively as they can “bias our perceptions, alter our decision-making processes, and create obstacles to collaborate communication with our children”. If we don’t repair our own historical damage, attachment to our children can suffer greatly as our children “need us to attune to them in order to achieve the physiological balance that enables them to create a coherent mind.”
This is what Siegel calls the ABC of attachment:
Attunement: Aligning your own mental state with those of your children. Often accomplished by the contingent sharing of non-verbal signals.
Balance: Your children attain balance of their body, emotions, and states of mind through attunement with you.
Coherence: The sense of integration that is acquired by your children through your relationship with them in which they are able to come to feel both internally integrated and interpersonally connected to others.”
From the perspective of our children I believe that it is important to “fill the gaps” of problematic family issues for them in an age appropriate, understandable manner, rather than brushing them under the carpet or even making up stories that aren’t true. Children are very attuned to what we tell them, especially when they sense “a bit of drama” and they don’t forget. I believe it is healthier to tell the truth, even about issues we would rather hide, than our children finding out that we lied to them.
Of course there will always be cases when we will have to try our best to keep traumatic details from our children for as long as we can, but in general children are happier with the truth rather than sensing that there is something we are not telling them, which can create unnecessary anxiety and unease. The more openly we deal with generational conflict or traumatic past experiences, the more we will be able to heal them rather than pass them on to the next generation. I know myself that it’s not always an easy thing to do. As long as we are aware of our very real connection to past and future generations and the part we all play in this delicate web, we have made a step into the right direction.
For more information on mindful parenting and education and a practical everyday approach that can be applied by anybody and tailored to your individual circumstances take a look at my new book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”, a handbook for parents and educators to promote positive change based on the principles of mindfulness.
Thanks so much for your interest and support! 😉 Alex
Also available as kindle and paperback on Amazon: