Do you know what intergenerational patterns are? In a sense, people are nothing more than organic machines. That is to say, machines and computers follow patterns to function. These patterns appear in the codes written when programming a machine or computer. In the same way that machines and computers follow patterns, humans do the same. Much like machine patterns, humans follow intergenerational patterns. We are going to learn more about how this type of pattern affects people in the following article.

Patterns are in place to help us survive in the world. Whether through a sleep schedule, morning routine, or how/when we fit in times to eat, we develop patterns to optimize our lives and make them more manageable. Optimization is something that machines and computers do very well; humans strive for this type of optimization! Unfortunately, some of the developed patterns aren’t always beneficial to humans. 

This article will help you understand three objectives. The first objective will be about how humans create and pass down patterns through generations. The second objective will be to delineate between healthy and unhealthy patterns. The last objective will be on how you can work on this in therapy to change the patterns.

The Creation of Rules

People create rules to help them optimize and adapt to changes that happen in daily life. On a small scale, think about a person’s morning commute with traffic along the usual route traveled. “I will take this (other) route for the next month until they finish this construction.” Often, changes in rules and expectations in life make our lives easier. You can observe the rules you use to adapt and optimize life within your interactions with other people! Just thinking about who you avoid or try to get closer to every day can show you that we all have rules that we follow, even if they are implicit (i.e., unspoken or rather “just understood”) rules.

Often, we create these implicit rules without giving them any additional thought. When did you established these rules? What caused you to develop these rules? Are these rules are actually helpful? These questions are the basis of the intentionality of treatment in therapy! Frequently, clients will arrive at a first session with problems or concerns that they are noticing that are impacting their lives. After several sessions, the treatment usually shifts to talking about a client when they were a child growing up. Why would this be important?

Learning the Rules

Unbeknownst to most people, many patterns or “rules of engagement” are developed as children. For instance, think of very young children. They learn the “rules” of what they can and cannot do from a very early age. This process of learning the rules about themselves, others, and the world around them extends to the family and environment in which a child grows up. These rules can be simple. An example of a simple rule is: “Do not cross the street without looking both ways!” “A child learning to put their needs second to their depressed, alcoholic parent’s needs” is a more complex rule.

Family Patterns

As you can see, families are the primary place of learning for children as they grow up. Schools or daycares can also significantly influence a child’s life, but the home is the primary place for learning the core of attachment, loyalty, and value systems. You can probably see how healthy families can lead to healthy rules. These rules can influence the child’s sense of Self, others, and the world around them. Unfortunately, if you are reading this article, you likely have noticed that your rules might not be the healthiest. Can you think of rules you may have grown up with that you are now passing down to your children? Or, what about rules that you are trying to break out of now? 

If you can imagine how teaching children rules can impact them, then you are starting to understand “Systems Theory.” Families or other systems the child interacts with (e.g., daycare) teach children skills to help them in the world. These skills are later passed down from one generation to the next either explicitly or implicitly.  An example of an explicit skill can be “I am going to teach you how to do your taxes today.” An example of an implicit skill could be a child “staying strong” for a parent going through a hard time. Here is where you get the concept of intergenerational patterns. 

Understanding Intergenerational patterns

Imagine this process of gaining skills as a child (from your caregivers), using them successfully, having children, and then teaching your children these skills. Then have this process repeat through several generations. This process is a recipe for success for families if the skills learned and passed down to the next generation are adaptive. These skills produce successful children in school/trades, relationships with others (i.e., friendships and romantic relationships), and working with others in a career. One way to view success is how well a person can form and keep relationships with others.

The above is a summarized black-and-white description of patterns we can observe through generations. Obviously, people, and life, are more complicated than this! Many variables and events outside of our control impact people. These variables can change how people adapt (and make new implicit rules). They can also later teach others (children, friends, coworkers, or strangers) once they have adapted the skills. 

Maladaptive Intergenerational Patterns

Some variables or events that affect people come in the form of adversity. Examples of hardship are death, abandonment, sickness, eviction, divorce, violence, moving, the threat of violence, abuse, neglect, or injury. And that was not an exhaustive list! These examples demonstrate events that can impact a family’s life in ways that we cannot predict. 

Adaptation Versus Rules

These adversities are not maladaptive as we cannot control them. Instead, our response to adversity can become maladaptive or adaptive. First, the family must adapt to an introduction to the family system of trauma, tragedy, and hardship. Within adaptation, families make new rules. These new rules impact the relationships within the home. The rules may develop subconsciously, without the family even aware of the small shifts occurring. 

Rules Becoming Intergenerational Patterns

Frequently, generations of tragedy, trauma, and hardship impact people and their families. However, sometimes the patterns passed down aren’t as blatant as a family tragedy. Sometimes, the pattern is less noticeable, like a family’s inability to emotionally regulate and using only anger to express themselves. We can observe other examples of possible intergenerational patterns impacting a family through a child having extreme difficulties in school with behavior problems with their peers. A second example could be an adult having issues keeping a job or consistent friends. 

A final example could be a consistently “unlucky in love” person. This person seems to keep dating the wrong types of people. It could be easy to think of the previous examples as individual personal problems or the impact of tragedies on a single person alone. In some cases, this is correct. However, in other cases, things are more complicated. Looking into family dynamics and patterns through generations (through a family tree or genogram), you can see that there are patterns of adversity and maladaptive responses that have followed the family. These intergenerational patterns can show two truths. One truth is that not all learned patterns are healthy. Another truth is that these patterns are not creating success for family members in different domains in their lives.

Motivation for Change

Sometimes, no one in the family stops to think about changes being made to themselves or their family. The impact of not stopping could have implications on the next generation. You might be the first person in your family to actively take steps to change your intergenerational learned patterns. In order to improve how you interact with other people, it takes a lot of courage!

Why Is Thinking about Intergenerational Patterns Important?

Let us pretend that you were thinking about intergenerational patterns and their possible implications. Describing these potential implications could help you explore your possible patterns with greater intentionality.

Intergenerational Patterns: Children

If you have ever been around children, you will know that they are “fascinating sponges.” The intersection of their growing personalities, their natural temperaments, their pure curiosity for the world, and how quickly they begin picking up and revealing truths about who is raising them is quite the process to watch unfold. 

If you have children, you may see your children doing something and say, “that is definitely their (other) parent.” However, other times you may see yourself or even your parents in your children’s actions. Parents always hope that their children pick up their good qualities. Unfortunately, children are sponges, and they pick up on our more desirable and less desirable traits. You might even see yourself doing things your parents did for you growing up with your children. You may never want to do those things with your children. It might be time to think about intergenerational patterns that you have picked up from your childhood. No matter how old your children get, it is not too late to make changes that can positively impact your relationship with your children and what skills your children can learn from you to adapt to their own lives.

If you plan to raise children someday, it is helpful to think about your childhood and what changes you can make to better your children’s future. However, hoping for these changes alone is usually not effective. Instead, you must dive deep and make the changes you seek:

  1. It is essential to understand your unmet needs.
  2. Work to heal from the trauma of not receiving what you needed.
  3. Practice gaining skills to meet the needs of your children.

We can only parent our children as well as we re-parent ourselves. 

Intergenerational Patterns: Family Relationships 

Even if you have no interest in having or raising children, you come from a family. If you have conflictual family relationships, there is probably a history of where that conflict started. Understanding intergenerational patterns can help you understand how to break those unhelpful patterns and improve your family relationships. By no means are we are excusing your father’s anger or mother’s neglect, for example. However, empathy and compassion feel more manageable than resentment. By becoming introspective about the potential patterns that have impacted your family, you will feel better and have a more precise direction in life. 

Intergenerational Patterns: Friendships

Do you have issues with friendships? We encourage you to turn inward to see how you make, maintain, or keep friendships. Friendship conflicts could be a product of trauma from previous relationships/friendships. On the other hand, it could also be a product of your attachment styles and patterns. These conflicts could originate from your relationships with your parents/caregivers growing up. Additionally, the conflicts could be from what was not modeled for you by your caregivers. If the latter seems true, you must understand and work with the intergenerational patterns you adopted. It can help to improve your friendships!

Intergenerational Patterns: Romantic relationships

Have you found yourself dating the same type of person, or is the relationship’s ending frequently bad? Understanding who you are attracted to and why could include a discussion around intergenerational patterns. For example, you might assign the attraction towards a potential mate as their “carefreeness” or their “drive.” However, these qualities are likely adversities they’ve adapted to within their family system and are now rules for engagement. 

For instance, that carefree persona you loved so much in the beginning now feels like conflict avoidance later in the relationship when you constantly feel shut out by your partner. If you dive deep into your own need for adaptations, you find carefree to be attractive. This could be because you grew up in a rigid, overly structured home. However, as the relationship progresses, you find your partner shutting you out due to their aversions to conflict. This could feel similar to your parents not having the capacity to make space for your needs as a child!

See how your relationship with your partner mirrors parts of your relationship with your caregivers, which their caregivers can heavily influence. Of course, this mirroring isn’t accurate for everyone and isn’t all of your relationships. For example, continued unfulfilling patterns within romantic relationships could have other origins. These patterns could result from the impact of trauma in the past and be separate from your family. However, how your family supported you through that trauma or how you viewed the trauma could be an intergenerational pattern. Family support could determine if it was helpful or unhelpful in helping you recover from the trauma.

Intergenerational Patterns: Workplace Habits

Are you finding yourself having difficulties keeping or maintaining a job/career? Are there frequent conflicts with coworkers or clients that feel similar? Does it seem like problems come for you no matter where you go to work? If any of these are true, it sounds like you are stuck in a maladaptive intergenerational pattern. Those conflicts may make going to work something you wake up to every morning with dread. If you are experiencing repeating issues at work, it might be helpful to look into your attachment patterns and styles that could have developed from intergenerational patterns or trauma.

Doing the Work in Therapy

Background Information

If you are still interested in learning about what it would look like to work on intergenerational patterns in therapy, good! This section will help to give you a better understanding. There are differences in what the therapeutic work would look like in individual, couples/parents, and family therapy. For this reason, I will briefly discuss them to understand the differences. No matter who is involved in treatment, a history of presenting problems needs to be understood. This will occur at the beginning of treatment. A history is taken by listening to your story and doing a genogram (i.e., family tree) and a timeline.

Understanding Your Intergenerational Patterns

After understanding the background of your presenting problems, you and the therapist will work to understand patterns present in your life. Next, work will be done to understand what themes are in this pattern. For individual therapy, you can do this by talking about friends, romantic relationships, or even workplace dynamics to understand better the patterns in your current life and how it impacts you. In couples or family therapy, understanding what happens within the relationships to cause conflicts helps understand the patterns.

Next, is exploring connections between patterns. Exploring the relationships between the history of family and current patterns in relationships is important.  Understanding if there is a connection between the two will occur through drawing comparisons in processes. If there is a connection, you and the therapist will dive deep and understand this entirely. Then, your therapist will work with you to build skills to help practice changing these patterns. 

Sometimes, deep-seated wounds impede an individual, couple, or family’s ability to practice making changes in their lives. If this is the case, doing work to process the trauma and heal from it can help. Working to heal from the trauma can alleviate the trauma symptoms that may be impacting healthy relationship patterns. 

Making Changes

Time had been taken to understand the history and impact of patterns. Then roles that people play in the pattern and skill-building take place to give hope that changes can made. The final part of therapy will be working towards change. The therapist will help you quickly identify when the pattern is occurring in your life through practice in sessions. Next, work to determine what is needed to shift out of this pattern will occur. Then, practicing utilizing different skills to make the shift will be a final part of treatment. 

Although this is a basic overview of what will happen in treatment to identify, understand, and work towards changing intergenerational patterns, there will frequently be times when the treatment repeats or is modified when new information or understandings of patterns are known. In addition, sometimes processing what occurs within the therapeutic relationship will be done to understand, process, and change an interaction pattern that could reinforce the intergenerational patterns in your life. Indeed, having an emotionally safe and trusting therapeutic relationship lends itself to collaborative changes. 

What can you hope to see through working on this in this way?

If you are thinking about doing the therapeutic work to understand your intergenerational patterns and traumas, you might be wondering what is it that you hope to change? One standard change in this type of therapy is your relationships with others in several domains of your life. For example, improvements in your relationships with your friendships, family, and work could result from understanding the impact of intergenerational patterns in your life. In addition, understanding your patterns can reveal how those patterns persist in several areas of your life. 

Increasing Responses

Another change that you will get from this type of work is identifying and modifying your response when you perceive an unhealthy relationship pattern. Essentially, you are challenging the maladaptive responses and creating adaptive patterns that work for you now. Increasing your identification speed will help you know when to utilize the skills you learned in therapy to gain greater confidence in your assertiveness skills to get preferred outcomes. 

Confidence and Assertiveness

Through vulnerability, a greater sense of Self is a third change you can obtain from understanding your intergenerational patterns through therapy work. Being more confident in yourself and how to assert yourself differently to encourage healthier relationships will inevitably lead to you becoming more vulnerable with others. As a result, you will have the confidence to take more chances in relationships, leading to greater feelings of intimacy and connection with others. Ultimately, understanding your intergenerational patterns can help you feel more in control. Indeed, you will have better control over your interactions with family members, friends, coworkers, and strangers, which can help you have greater satisfaction in your life (i.e., feelings of connection, worth, purpose, and meaning). 

If you are ready to start your journey in exploring your intergenerational patterns in hopes of a better tomorrow, call us today at 267-495-4951 or contact us through our contact form. We are here to guide you into insights, changes, and confidence! 


Meet The Author:

Caleb Dunn

Caleb Dunn

Licensed Professional Counselor

Caleb Dunn, LPC, NCC, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Director, is known for his balanced approach that is light-hearted, genuine, and serious. He focuses on creating a non-judgmental space where clients can openly discuss their struggles. Specializing in working with children, families, at-risk youth, and adults in Philadelphia, Caleb addresses issues like family conflicts, anxiety, depression, and trauma. He is experienced in supporting BIPOC and LGBTQ+ teens and their families. Utilizing Eco-Systemic Structural Family Therapy, EMDR, Motivational Interviewing, CBT, and Person-Centered Therapy, he aims to help clients understand and change negative patterns rooted in their past, empowering them to grow into confident and assertive individuals. Caleb is committed to helping clients and families develop the tools needed for a successful life.

Learn more about Caleb Dunn ⇒

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