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4 Ways to Support the Entire Family in Times of Stress

10/02/2015 01:01pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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When one person is affected by trauma, there is a ripple effect on the whole family.

My 14-year-old client sits across from me not making eye contact. He was struggling to describe his immense guilt about his sister being hurt. He described his difficulty with his family being separated and worrying about the safety plan in place for the family. His family was currently coping with allegations of sexual abuse. With all he was describing, you have thought that he was the alleged perpetrator, but instead it was his brother.

The importance of sibling support is a passion of mine not only because of my belief in Family Systems Theory, but also because it has touched me personally. Illness affected my family when I was about 13 years old. Not only was I having a hard time with just being 13, but now the roles of my family were changing and I wasn't quite sure how to cope.

When one person is affected by a major life event, there can be a ripple effect on the entire family. The steps below outline ways we can support all family members during times of stress.

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1. Seek out support for siblings of the affected child (or other affected family members).

In the example above, my client was lucky. His parents recognized the immense toll this situation was having on him and referred him to our trauma treatment program. Often the siblings or other family members that are not the direct victims of a traumatic event can be lost in the shuffle. So much has changed in their lives, especially, when a family member is accused of being a perpetrator of the trauma. Like my client described, there are new rules in place for the family and often many more appointments to attend. And ultimately, many can feel as though their needs are no longer as important despite their caregivers' best efforts.

2. Process the event as a family and acknowledge its impact on each member.

A commonly used theory in counseling (and one I use frequently) is Family Systems Theory. This theory does a great job of explaining how interconnected our relationships are. This theory describes families as one emotional unit. For my 14-year-old client, the roles of his family members were shifting, and this left him anxious and unsure. The task now was to help him and his family members discover how to process what happened and how to move forward in a healthy way.

3. Learn how the effects on family members may last longer than the period of stress.

During the illness that affected my family at age 13, the stress affected me in a unique way. Whether I decided to or not consciously, I ended up being "the perfect child." I strove for excellence in school, sports, and in my social life. I was not going to require more attention than I thought my family could give. While this way of coping certainly had its benefits, I found that as an adult, I started to struggle with asking for help or sharing my feelings with others. I was reminded again of "not wanting to be a problem" and proving that I could always take care of myself. I was stuck thinking that my problems weren't as bad or weren't as important as other people's. I found myself unhappy at work and in relationships. I was relying too much on myself, which left me burnt out and lonely.

4. Don't forget to help yourself but don't expect it to be easy.

It took seeking help through counseling to understand how the events in my family affected my beliefs and behavior to really make me feel as though I could start improving my life. I started to practice being more assertive and really believing my family and friends when they said that they wanted to hear about my problems. It took hard work to change my belief system and start to rely on others. The most profound shift, though, was seeing myself from a place of worth: when it came to my needs, my thoughts, and my wants.

Ultimately, my own experience and later my experience in my professional life as a trauma-focused therapist, really highlighted to me how trauma can impact an entire family, or an entire system.

The event doesn't happen in a vacuum, and it's hard to predict how any one person will cope. Most importantly, we can all use some support to help us cope. We are all worth it.

For more information on trauma and major life events, contact Katie Jackson at Kathryn.c.jackson@gmail.com or visit www.daybreakcounsel.com.

Co-Author: Kathryn Jackson is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and the Clinical Director at Daybreak Counseling in Chicago. Katie's specialties include trauma, major life events, and autism. In her free time, Katie is a voracious reader of novels, slowly checking off her travel "to-go list",and usually has a cup of dark roast coffee in her hand.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.