We often talk about how trauma affects an individual, but how does trauma affect a family unit?
If you have been subjected to a traumatic situation, no one needs to tell you that the experience has a major, ongoing impact. In some instances, it can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But the effect is rarely limited to only the survivor. For example, a family unit is susceptible to whatever happens to any part of that unit.
When a family member endures a trauma, it can dramatically shift the overall dynamic. This is particularly true of immediate family members but can sometimes include the extended family. In cases of family or generational trauma, the entire family has been involved for a very long time. Let’s take a closer look.
The Impact of Trauma on a Family Unit
Simply put, no two families will handle trauma in the same manner. You must factor in many unique variables, e.g.:
- The cause of the trauma
- The ages of the children
- Are the parents still together?
- Culture and ethnicity
- Do they have a support system?
Even so, there are some common themes in a situation like this. Families can be highly stressed, experience guilt and shame, and end up isolated. They lack healthy coping mechanisms and make also lack the material resources they need. As discussed below, when the effects of trauma on a family go unaddressed, it can ignite a cycle of generational trauma.
However, even life’s toughest episodes have the potential to reveal silver linings. A family affected by trauma can:
- Grow closer and more supportive of each other .
- Gain support from friends, neighbors, and extended family members.
- Develop a deeper appreciation for the good things in their life.
But make no mistake, trauma is never something to be brushed off. Even when you feel you’ve got a handle on things, it could be very helpful to speak with a mental health professional to assess how everyone is truly doing. It’s not unusual to get an informed outside opinion to better gauge the post-trauma dynamics.
For years now, I have sat with a wide range of clients who are struggling with the aftermath of trauma. I’ve met with their spouses, their children, their siblings, and their parents. I’ve seen firsthand how trauma can send a family into a tailspin.
Some Ways I’ve Seen Trauma Affect A Family Unit:
- Emotional Distress: Family members who experience trauma may exhibit a range of emotional responses such as anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, or shame. These emotions can create tension within the family and affect how members interact with each other. Some relationships in the family may grow more distant, some may grow closer, and other’s may become tense and conflicted.
- Reliance on Avoidance: Some family members may avoid talking, thinking or feeling. They may turn to activities which distract or sooth them. Compulsions and addictions can develop.
- Communication Breakdown: Trauma very often can lead to breakdowns in communication. Individuals may struggle to express their feelings or thoughts, and family members might find it challenging to understand or respond appropriately. This breakdown can create misunderstandings and further isolate family members from one another.
- Role Changes: Trauma can disrupt established family roles and dynamics. For example, a parent who experiences trauma might find it difficult to fulfill their caregiving role, leading to shifts in responsibilities within the family. Quite often, children will step into a parentified role and begin to take emotional care of their parent.
- Grief and Loss: Trauma often involves loss of some kind, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a sense of safety, or an expected future. Many trauma survivors find that their religious and spriritual beliefs are shaken. Others have shared with me that they “lost faith in the goodness of life itself”. This grief can spread throughout the family. One man recently shared with me how the palpable collective grief in his family felt like “living in a graveyard”. Trauma can impact the family’s ability to process their emotions and come to terms with the changes brought about by the traumatic event or situation.
- Isolation: Families might withdraw from social activities and interactions due to the stigma or shame associated with the trauma. This isolation can further hinder healthy coping mechanisms and support networks. A mother who lost her child said to me, “I don’t go anywhere for the last decade. I don’t want the horrible, awkward question to arise. Inevitably someone asks if I have kids. I still don’t know what to say.
- Reactivity and Conflict: Trauma can lead to heightened reactivity, where family members might react more strongly to stressors or triggers. After trauma, people struggle with shame, fear, guilt and anger. This can result in increased conflict within the family as emotions run high.
- Parenting Challenges: Trauma can affect a parent’s ability to provide consistent and effective parenting. Parents might struggle to manage their emotions, enforce boundaries, or meet the emotional needs of their children.
- Interpersonal Strain: Trauma can strain relationships between family members. Siblings, spouses, and other close relatives might struggle to relate to each other due to the impact of trauma on their emotional well-being. Their relationship can become shallow as they tip toe around issues, and/or they can become draining, heated and emotional.
- Resilience Variations: Different family members might cope with trauma differently. Some may show resilience and adapt relatively quickly, while others might struggle to heal and recover. These variations can lead to tension and misunderstandings. More than one client has shared with me how a loved one told them to “get over it”. Or the opposite occurs and people say, “I think they are in denial and just not really facing things”.
- Life and Lifestyle Changes: Depending on the type of trauma, the family may face disruption in their way of life. Trauma may cause a change in socio-economic status. The family may move to get away from stigma, or to establish safety and privacy.
- Recovery Process: The process of healing and recovery can be a lengthy and challenging journey. Family members might need to adapt to changes in routines, schedules, and behaviors as the individual who experienced trauma seeks treatment and support.
It’s important to note that not all families will respond to trauma in the same way, and the impact can vary widely depending on factors such as the nature of the trauma, the family’s pre-existing dynamics, and the available support systems. Seeking professional help, such as therapy or counseling, can be crucial in navigating the effects of trauma on a family and facilitating the healing process for everyone involved
What Is Family or Generational Trauma?
Often, the trauma at hand is not new — or even close to new. Your family could have a long history of psychological struggle but an unwillingness to openly address it. Generational trauma is “passed down” through unhealthy behavioral choices. After enough generations have been impacted, however, it can shift to an actual hereditary factor. Emotional wounds, left untreated, gain power over time and can normalize some very counterproductive choices.
Common Signs of Generational Trauma
- A general sense of denial
- Intrusive memories, flashbacks, and nightmares
- Lack of trust for virtually anyone outside the family
- Not connecting with others
- Unresolved grief
- Irrational fears and worries
- Blocked out memories
- Substance abuse
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Angry outbursts
- Over-protectiveness of family members
- Thoughts of death, self-harm, and suicide
Children in school may display academic issues, skipping classes, acting out, and more. They have trouble fitting in.
Getting the Support You Need and Deserve
This process begins with an acceptance and awareness of what is happening. It sometimes comes down to a single family member making the brave decision to put an end to the ongoing cycle. If so, they are advised to seek out conversations with whatever relative is willing to talk. The more you learn about your family’s past, the better you can address the present.
If the trauma is not generational, you want to make certain it doesn’t become chronic. Once again, a therapist is uniquely positioned to assist with this effort. Whether you start with individual or family therapy, it is the foundation for dragging the details out into the light. This is challenging work that can become more doable with professional guidance.