How Trauma Affects Families
When trauma affects one person in a family, the whole family unit is affected. In fact, many professionals believe that anything that affects one person in a family (or couple) will also affect the other(s). It is easy to see how this could happen. A family is thought of a unit – one whole made of many parts.
The best representation of a family unit is a mobile, like those that hang over a baby’s crib with different shapes and colors. The mobile is balanced as long as all the pieces and parts remain intact. If one piece of the mobile is removed or altered, the whole unit becomes unstable.
In families, if one person is altered or changed in some way, that change affects everyone in the unit. For example, a family functions at its natural state when everyone does their part to contribute. That might mean mom works part-time, runs the household, shops for groceries and cooks, dad works and takes care of the yard and the kids go to school and keep their rooms clean.
If mom can not perform her duties, the family unit is affected. Someone has to shop and cook, which changes their usual patterns of behavior. Perhaps the oldest teen takes on shopping and cooking. These additional duties may not leave enough time for the teen to do homework and/or study for tests. As a result his/her grades may suffer.
This may result in dad being required to take time off work to go to the school for a meeting about the teen’s failing grades. With less income from mom’s salary, the younger kids may have to stop taking dance and karate classes. You get the picture – everyone if affected by changes in mom’s life.
The Effects of Trauma
Likewise, when one person in the family has experienced a traumatic event, the changes in the person’s behaviors, moods and attitudes can affect everyone in the family. Besides the obvious in the example given above, family members are affected emotionally by changes in other members of the unit. Seeing one of our family members suffering emotionally creates an emotional response in us.
We feel sympathy for a loved one who is suffering. We may want to take away or somehow lessen their suffering. In some cases, we may feel guilty that s/he was affected and we were not. This is known as survival guilt. Survival guilt happens when we can’t understand how we could be spared, while another suffers.
In some cases, we may begin to experience the same or some of the feelings of the person who was traumatized. This is called empathy. People have varying degrees of empathy. Those who are very empathic are often regarded as highly-sensitive, or ‘wearing their heart on their sleeve’.
These people may feel their feelings more deeply, and often feel the feelings of others. For example, they may cry easily when they see another person crying, or be quick to anger when another expresses anger. People with high levels of empathy can be greatly affected when someone they love is suffering.
Family members may feel resentment or anger when trauma has affected someone they love. This may be anger directed toward the person or event that caused the trauma, anger toward God or the universe for not protecting their loved one or anger toward the person who was harmed. While this may not make sense to others, a family member may become angry toward the person who is suffering due to faulty thinking or beliefs.
This could mean they blame the victim for not being more aware or for putting themselves in harm’s way. We hear this a lot in rape cases. There are a number of other scenarios that could result in this misdirected anger. In these cases, it is important for the person experiencing the anger to get help. Otherwise, their anger or blame could cause further damage to the person who is already traumatized. Cognitive behavioral therapy is useful in addressing this issue.
Family members may experience sadness, depression or grief in response to their loved one’s trauma. It is difficult to see people we love in pain. Sadness or grief would be a normal response. However, a person who experiences sadness every day for more than two weeks may become depressed. In this event, a trip to your medical provider is indicated.
Sometimes family members and friends of a person who is experiencing a trauma don’t know what to say or do, so they avoid contact with their loved one. This can be very hurtful, as the person who is already suffering can become isolated and without support. If you recognize that you are dreading or avoiding contact with a loved one, try to remember that you don’t have to have all the answers.
When my stepfather died and my mother was wrought with grief, I felt overwhelmed by her emotions, as she rarely showed a lot of emotion. None of my siblings knew what to say, so I advised them to simply tell her how sad they were and ask if there was anything they could do to help. I also told her that I didn’t know what to say or do to relieve her suffering, but would be there to listen.
It is listening and the presence of a loved one that provides comfort. Questions asked by one who is suffering are often rhetorical – there is no answer. Simply confirming their feelings and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with them is most helpful. Of course, being vulnerable is one of the most difficult things we can do. It is said that getting comfortable with discomfort is crucial to managing our anxiety. That certainly applies here – it is your willingness to be uncomfortable (vulnerable) that will allow you to connect with your traumatized family member.
There are other ways too numerous to mention that families are affected by the suffering of one member. If you find any of the things listed here to be problematic, suggest family counseling. If others are not willing to go to family counseling, perhaps you can get individual counseling for support, if needed.
Should anyone in the family begin to abuse alcohol or drugs, talk about not wanting to live, exhibit or talk about other extremes, seek professional assistance sooner, rather than later.
Carlson, Eve B., PhD, and Joseph Ruzek, PhD. "PTSD and the Family." Department of Veteran Affairs. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.
Biswas-Diener, Robert. "Balancing the Empathy Expense Account: Strategies for Regulating Empathic Response." Empathy in Mental Illness. By Sara D. Hodges. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. N. Page. Http://positiveacorn.com. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.