The movie “Turning Red” has been a hit for several reasons: the adorable and captivating anime-influenced animations, the hit song “Nobody Like U” on the Billboard Top 100 songs, and of course, the beautifully-written story written by director Domee Shi and Julia Cho.
Aside from a humorous anecdote on adolescent experiences, “Turning Red” gives us a medium from which to think and talk about generational trauma in our own families.
Although, in reality, families do not inherit the ability to turn into giants, red pandas, the curse of the Red Panda very intricately symbolizes trauma that can be passed down and inherited from generation to generation.
The entire premise of the story is really about healing from past familial trauma, with the whole feat requiring a whole community of people–Meilin’s aunts and grandmother–to be able to help her mother, and herself, in embracing the red panda in the name of healing.
Generational trauma can be a result of an individual trauma in a family, like Mei’s relationship with her mother being impacted by the tension that Mei’s mother had with her own mother, but viewing generational trauma in this way erases the historical impact that systemic oppression has had on particular populations in very intentional ways.
Any individual can indeed experience generational trauma, but the constant and systemic exposure to stress that marginalized communities have experienced throughout history makes them particularly vulnerable to inheriting trauma from previous generations. So, what exactly is generational trauma, and how can we include our mothers in the healing process?
What is generational trauma?
There are several physical and genetic characteristics that we inherit from our parents. Aside from eye color or facial features, many people also inherit generational trauma from their parents and grandparents and can even date back several generations.
The concept of generation trauma was first coined by Dr. Vivian M. Rakoff, MD, who was studying the psychological challenges in the grandchildren of holocaust survivors. Her research team found higher levels of psychological distress in these later generations, manifesting in several ways, such as “risky health behaviors, anxiety and shame, food hoarding, overeating, authoritarian parenting styles, high emotional neediness on the part of parents and low community trust and cohesiveness.”
More recent research has also looked into how generational trauma is passed down at the genetic level.
Research looking into the overall health and well-being of children and grandchildren of Union soldiers who were Prisoners of War during the Civil War has shown similar results to studies done on the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and now scientists have begun to look more closely at the effects of trauma on epigenetic makeup.
Though many of these studies have examined this phenomenon using the genetic composition of mice, the research indicates that experiencing trauma can, indeed, result in “tiny chemical tags [being] added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.”
In other words, constant abuse, poverty, and exposure to violence could change the molecular tags that turn our genes on or off, and those changes to our epigenetic composition could be passed down to offspring.
How does generational trauma manifest?
Generational trauma can manifest itself in many ways. It can look like “hypervigilance, a sense of a shortened future, mistrust, aloofness, high anxiety, depression, panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, a sensitive fight or flight response, and issues with self-esteem and self-confidence.”
The psychological distress that generational trauma causes is reason enough to seek healing, and it is also essential to understand how it can impact physical health and life expectancy. “Trauma and stress can increase the chances of chronic pain, certain illnesses, and behaviors that can impact wellness, including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, poor sleep hygiene, heart disease, substance use disorders (SUD), and diabetes,” PsychCentral explains.
Why is it important to work on healing while including mothers?
In “Turning Red,” Mei was sheltered from the truth of her ability to turn into a Red Panda and the history of where that stemmed from. In trying to protect her, her mother kept the secret of her own rocky relationship with her mother from Mei. There was no communication about this generational curse until it manifested itself in Mei and caused a domino effect of problems (i.e., destroying a concert stadium).
The first step towards healing is understanding and validating the trauma(s) that occurred in the past and how systemic discrimination and marginalization continue to exacerbate these experiences.
Communication around trauma is also helpful, and learning how to engage this effectively can be learned in therapy. The worst thing to do is to silence the past and keep that history in the dark, similar to what happened with Mei.
Be empathetic to the need to hide trauma in the past out of survival, and approach your healing with compassion and love, just as Mei empathized with her own mother once she understood why her mom felt the way that she did towards her own red panda.
Healing looks different for everyone, and healing from generational trauma is not any different. Healing for yourself as an individual is important, and helping parents and grandparents do the same can also be a part of the journey. Many people do not have this privilege due to rocky relationships with their mothers or the passing of their mothers. But if you can, breaking generational trauma alongside your mother can be a beautiful and restorative journey.
Remember that “a parent or grandparent who never truly healed from or explored their own trauma may find it very difficult to provide emotional support to a family member suffering from [their] own trauma,” as Duke University explains.
With the right resources, you and your mother can break generational curses by talking about and acknowledging the trauma.
Acknowledge that the red panda was at one time necessary for survival, but that it is crucial to learn about the lasting impact that can have on well-being. Be gentle with your mother, but encourage her to go to therapy. If you can, pay for her sessions, take her to her appointments, and show her that communication is necessary. Treat her with respect and dignity while also showing her new, healthier ways of thinking, behaving, or even parenting.
Healing is not necessarily an individualistic feat, and including your mother in acknowledging, empathizing, and healing can disrupt cycles of generational curses just like it did for Mei and her mother. If you haven’t yet checked out “Turning Red,” watch the film and the behind-the-scenes documentary on Disney+.