The Importance of Knowing Your Family History

In Culture, Family & Couples, Helpful Stuff, Self-Compassion, Trauma by christine

The Importance of Knowing Your Family History

For many people, an exploration into family-of-origin history can seem unnecessarily painful.  Parents are not often keen on sharing family histories that hold ancestors in a negative light (slave owners, Nazis, colonizers, et cetera), or share stories about ancestors who endured unimaginable traumas (such as genocide, incarceration, and slavery).  In such cases, parents often assume “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” and may believe they are protecting their children. 

However, research evidences that children who have been told about their ancestors and know a great deal of family history (positive and negative) are better adjusted and more resilient in the face of challenges.  Additionally, knowing about family histories helps foster self-identity, self-esteem, compassion, and a global perspective.  Children that know about their ancestors can become self-directive by recognizing that their life choices can hold long-term consequences and become part of the family legacy.  In this way, children can ask themselves, “how do I wish to show up in the world?” and realize that there is a ripple effect and greater sense of connectivity to others in one’s actions or inactions.

Developmentally, teenagers are egocentric, meaning they place themselves in the position of primary importance.  Knowing their family history, can help foster teens to conceptualize a bigger world view, empathy for the struggles for others, as well as admiration for others’ resiliency in the face of hardship and injustices.    

From the perspective of research in intergenerational trauma, we can be adversely impacted by the narratives of our ancestors – this can manifest as debilitating anxiety or internalized shame, that may not be ours to bear.  However, we can be released from the “stuckness” that family trauma can hold over us by choosing to process it (this will also gift future generations from family legacy pain).  For more on this see: and

With companies readily and affordably offering DNA testing, I am encountering individuals desiring to explore self-identify due to finding out new or surprising information about their ancestry.  If you are struggling with reconciling such new information with what you were led to believe about your heritage, you are not alone.  Grief, loss, shame, betrayal, vicarious trauma, and a host of other challenging emotions can present themselves.  However, I truly believe that once these adverse emotions have been effectively processed and acceptance of your family history can occur, your family’s story can be one use to empower you and help you grow into your preferred Self. 

Support is available for help in this area:

For a great resource, I recommend the book It didn’t start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle (Mark Wolynn, 2017).



Jacobs, A, J. (2017).  It’s all relative:  Up and down the world’s family tree.  New York, NY:  Simon & Schuster.