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The Emotional Legacy of Our Family Trees

gravestoneI’ve been helping my mom research our genealogy off and on over the last few years. Lately, she’s been hunting for tombstones. As I walk the oldest part of the cemeteries, reading the grave markers, I am continually taken aback by how many mark the burials of infants and young children.

We know on an intellectual level why it was difficult for our ancestors to make it through childhood, with disease and famine and lack of medical technology and effective medications. But can you imagine the absolute heartbreak of these early generations? A mother in 1852 can’t have felt any less emotional pain from the death of her son or daughter than I would. And then, try to imagine what emotional wounds these parents faced with this sadness, anger and possibly guilt passed down to their genetic line?

Epigenetics explains how certain genes responsible for diseases and mental illnesses can be turned off or on depending on the environment. In this documentary, “The Ghost in Your Genes,” researchers explain how looking at the genealogy of people affected with certain medical conditions often links them with certain environmental conditions. For example, people today suffering from type 2 diabetes likely had famine in the family tree and people with a tendency toward depression are linked with ancestors who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the type of research, we can’t say that PTSD causes depression susceptibility, but we can say that there seems to be a link.

Of course, epigenetics is still very new science and there are a lot of questions left unanswered, but let’s assume that trouble in the branches of our family tree can be passed on in some form down the line. Even if we put aside the possibility of a change in inheritable genetics, we can still pass along good or poor coping skills by teaching these to our children.

It doesn’t take too long going back in my family history to find emotional wounds, be it moms dying in childbirth or babies not making it to their first birthday or a disease epidemic racing through a family.

With one relative, her mother died giving birth to her and her father gave her to a neighbor who had lost their own child years before and had resolved to never have another baby of their own. She grew up knowing who her birth family was and what happened to her mother and what happened to her adoptive parents’ birth child. There isn’t information on the emotional environmental in her adoptive family home, but she ended up divorcing her husband in a time when it was very taboo to end a marriage and every generation since is riddled with multiple divorces. I wonder what pain she could have passed down?

With another relative, several unmarried sisters living together took him in when he was a baby because his parents were overwhelmed with a large family and farming. He stayed with his aunts down the road, knowing who his birth family was, and then was returned to his parents at age 5 and remained at home the rest of his childhood. The emotional environment at the aunties’ house was known to be very warm and nurturing, and many people commented that this relative had a much more optimistic, compassionate outlook on life than his hot-tempered birth family—curious.

One thing we definitely know for sure is that how we treat our children will affect them for the rest of their lives, and it doesn’t take much to speculate that how we treat our children would be repeated in their relationships with their own children, their children’s children and so forth. Without an intentional change to how we raise our children, by healing our childhood wounds and consciously raising our children a different way, we are passing along the same hurts generation by generation. And if we fold in the idea of epigenetics, we are not only passing along our childhood wounds by example but also through our genes.

Puts a different spin on filling out that family tree, doesn’t it?

The Emotional Legacy of Our Family Trees

Rita Brhel

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APA Reference
Brhel, R. (2013). The Emotional Legacy of Our Family Trees. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 2 Dec 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 Dec 2013
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