How do you identify family skeletons, i.e. generational trauma, in your family?

Your family tree is the obvious place to start—as are the emotional symptoms you’re observing, in your life or those of family members, which make you question if you’re dealing with generational trauma.

A lot of this section is basic genealogical research advice—with one significant exception. The information you seek is often noticeable only by its absence.

You’re looking for ‘skeletons in closets’: sex scandals, financial ruin, sudden deaths, illegitimate children—all the things the chroniclers of your family didn’t want to record for posterity.

Like a detective at a murder scene, you’re looking for disturbances in the ‘loam’ of your family history. And, as they say, the dead don’t talk.

1. Seek collaborators

Chasing family ghosts is a lonely task. Is there anyone you can share your journey with? Is anyone in your family interested in genealogy?

They will not only listen to you and share your interest, but will be a mine of information for both your family history and how to conduct further research.

They may or may not care about the emotional side; their interest may be purely factual. In that case, respect their viewpoint and don’t try to interest them in generational trauma—they may not be ready to peer under the stone and see what creepy-crawlies emerge.

Pay attention to those on the family fringe. Is there a branch that’s physically or emotionally distant from yours? It may reflect a schism in the dim, dark past—and some underlying, unresolved trauma.

Reach out to them—they may be making the same journey.

2. Update your family tree

Whether you write it out by hand or use online software doesn’t matter. What matters is that you keep a track of all you find, and that it’s accurate.

Assume nothing and fact-check everything you can. Anytime you find a discrepancy, check twice. It may have been a mistake—or it may have been the distorting effect of shame.

Anytime you find a discrepancy in family records, check twice. It may have been a mistake—or it may have been the distorting effect of shame.

A family tree hand-drawn by my mother had a whole branch misplaced by a generation. It may have been a memory lapse—yet that was the branch of the family where the scandal that wrecked her life occurred.

I also found a photograph of my grandparents’ wedding. On the back of it, my mother had written, “Father, between his mother and his bride.” My mother was so ashamed of her mother’s affair that she could only refer to her as “his bride.” That is the power of shame.

3. Identify sources of information

There are many online resources for researching genealogy. Use them. From public archives to church records to ancestry sites with extensive family trees to your own family’s records, there is a virtually infinite amount of information to trawl through.

4. Identify gaps in knowledge

Identify the people or periods in your family tree that you know little or nothing about. The closer those gaps are to you (vertically) in your family tree, the more relevant they are.

Your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are the most important as that’s where your DNA comes from. But don’t forget the impact of events—e.g. war deaths—that may have affected your immediate ancestors without it being obvious from the family tree.

Prioritise the most relevant areas of inquiry because, honestly, family research is a bottomless pit of time, money and (mis)information. Eventually, ‘genealogy fatigue’ will set in.

Make a list and, unless something startling comes up, stick to it.

5. Identify ‘no-go’ areas

Try to identify people or periods in your family history that may have been ‘swept under the carpet’. Here are some clues:

  • People without data—look for those in family trees with little or no information, e.g. people with no birth, marriage or death dates; anything that suggests physical/emotional distance.
  • Disinheritances—look at wills and check if everyone you would expect to inherit does inherit. Remember that later generations were automatically disinherited if one of their parents was disinherited.
  • Stillborn children—this may be a source of unprocessed grief.

In my own family, the clue lay in the absence of memorabilia from my grandfather’s amazing aviation career. They were too painful a reminder to my mother of her abandonment by her own mother.

Try the Family Stability Index,  quick tool for assessing your family’s emotional stability (i.e. lack of trauma) and zeroing in on possible no-go areas.

6. Seek information

Go online. You’ll be amazed how much information on your own family is right at your fingertips.

7. Get close

As I wrote in Living with ghosts – confronting generational trauma, close geographical proximity is a great trigger for surfacing buried trauma.

Find a collaborator, go on a road trip to inspect church records, visit a gravesite or photograph a house where one of your ancestors lived.

But remember—the trauma may explode into the open anytime.

Yann Schaub