How Does Trauma to One Family Member Affect the Entire Family Unit?
When a family member is traumatized it can have a ripple effect on the entire family unit. The nuclear family being parents, partners and siblings will often endure the shock to the system when one member of the family experiences trauma. These family members can either serve to be supports or obstacles to the member of the family that experienced trauma. At their worst the family unit itself can become a system in which the traumatized individual is essentially retraumatized continually based on their families treatment towards them, opinions about them or new role they cast for them after the traumatic experience occurs.
What Does This Look Like When a Child is the Victim of Trauma?
Children are incredibly resilient beings and can overcome trauma or have the effects significantly minimized by having supportive, empowering and understanding parents. When the parents’ response to the traumatic situation is negative it can be more traumatized to the child then the direct trauma exposure.
For example, if a teenage girl is raped by a stranger and the parents belittel and blame the teenager for “being stupid”, not “knowing better”, dressing a certain way or being in a certain place- this inevitably leaves that child feeling like they are to blame for what happened to them and something is inherently wrong with them to have caused such a thing to occur. This can leave that teenage girl feeling hopeless, lost, unsupported and very alone. If she then begins to act out and becomes promiscuous, or her grades drop because she has PTSD and cannot focus as well, or become irritable and has more outbursts towards the parents, the child again will likely be blamed for their behavior. All of her cries for support, her showing she is struggling will only continue to serve the narrative that that child is inherently bad, defective, and unlovable. The parents’ reaction to her only continues to show her the world is unsafe, unsupportive, and people in general are not to be counted on or trusted.
Consequences of When it is Not Discussed
Well meaning parents who struggle to cope with what happened to their child may shy away from conversations about how it’s affecting the child and carry on as if nothing happened- minimizing the effects of what happened to that child. This can foster children feeling all those same feelings, unloved, unsupported but also fosters this idea that “it’s in my head”, “it wasn’t that bad” or “I have no reason to still be upset/sad/angry” causing them to bury their shame, guilt and fears as it is not welcomed to discuss in the household.
In both cases, parents’ own trauma may account for their responses. A parent may be too triggered by that child’s sexual abuse to listen to them discuss it causing scenario 2. Alternatively, the parent could have their own history of sexual assault and blame themselves so they project their anger and blame on the child as they never fully coped with what happened to them. Furthermore, a parent’s lack of experience dealing with trauma themselves can cause them to feel inadequate in supporting their child in coping with trauma.
What Effect Can a Traumatized Parent Have on Their Children?
There are two main ways that children are affected when a parent is traumatized:
- Witnessing a parent’s trauma.
- Experiencing posttraumatic symptoms of the parent.
1. Witnessing a Parents Trauma
Witnessing could be through a child witnessing domestic violence or sexual assault of their parent. Children who witness a parent’s trauma may feel fearful and anxious. They may always be on guard, wondering when the next violent event will happen, waiting for the next shoe to drop. This can be seen in different behaviors depending on the child’s age.
Family Trauma Signs in Children under 5:
- Regressive behaviors such as bed wetting, thumb sucking and increased need for attention (whining/crying).
- Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep
- Development stutters
- Development of fear-based behaviors such as hiding
- Severe symptoms of separation anxiety
Signs in Elementary School Children:
- Feelings of guilt and self-blame for the abuse
- Low self esteem
- Decrease in academic performance
- Increased behavioral issues at school
- Difficult making and keeping friends
- Somatic complaints such as stomach aches or headaches with no known medical cause
Signs in Teens:
- Acting out or oppositional behaviors
- High-Risk Behaviors such as unprotected sex, drug/aclohcol use, stealing, crimal behaviors
- Low self-esteem
- Low threshold for stress
It is important to note that there is a distinction between common behaviors for girls and boys- though this does not mean it cannot present in the opposite way. Boys are more likely to engage in oppositional, aggressive, and what we would generally call “acting-out” activities. Girls are more likely to “act-inward” and thus struggle with low-self esteem, depression, self-harming, and socially isolative behaviors.
2. Experiencing posttraumatic symptoms of the parent
When individuals struggle with PTSD they can have a range of symptoms that have an effect on their children and spouse. The 2 most common that affect the family unit are: re-experiencing symptoms and avoidance and numbing symptoms.
PTSD can cause flashbacks and/or nightmares which are what we call re-experiencing symptoms. These symptoms can occur quickly and seemingly to bystanders as “out of nowhere”. They usually bring with them strong feelings and emotions of guilt, shame, anger, grief or fear. For some individuals the flashbacks can be so severe they feel as if the memory is occurring in real time. To children and partners this can be quite scary. The parent’s behavior is unpredictable. They may not understand why the family member is acting this way or what caused it. It can cause children to worry about that parent or feel that their parent is too fragile or unstable to take care of them. For a partner it can put them in a caregiver role and make them feel hopeless about how to get their partner back to who they were before the trauma.
Avoidance and Numbing Symptoms:
It is common for anyone experiencing PTSD to try to avoid trauma reminders and/or triggers. This may cause them to avoid people, places and things that remind them of their trauma. It can also cause them difficulty in experiencing joy and pleasure in things they used to love. Leaving that family member to feel detached or cut-off from their partner and children. Avoidance and Numbing can leave partners and children feeling unloved, unsupported and unimportant. As the trauma survivor may be hesitant to go to family events, holidays, kids games and struggle to connect with and engage with their loved ones like they used to.
Because the re-experiencing symptoms are so upsetting, people with PTSD try not to think about the event. If you have PTSD, you may also try to avoid places and things that remind you of the trauma. Or you may not feel like doing things that used to be fun, like going to the movies or your child’s event. It can also be hard for people with PTSD to have good feelings. You may feel “cut off” from family and children. As a result, children may feel that the parent with PTSD does not care about them.
How Does Trauma of One Sibling Effects the Other Siblings?
In my work, I have seen children whose siblings have experienced trauma struggle with many of the same trauma reactions and negative core beliefs. This is often due to parents focusing on trying to help the traumatized child and thus the sibling feeling neglected or pushed aside and unsupported. These children then tend to have a lot of the same acting-out or acting-in behaviors we described above. Many of them struggle with core beliefs of “I am responsible” “I have to be in control”; “I am unimportant/unlovable/defective”. This also occurs in children who are just so terrified of what happened to their sibling happening to them or anyone else they love that they are chronically anxious and fearful of the world.
Where to Start if You’re Struggling With Family Trauma
If this is all feeling a bit “close to home” you may want to reach out for support for yourself and your loved ones. Therapy will focus not just on the individual who has experienced trauma but also incorporate family sessions so that we work though any re-traumatizing interactions that are occurring within the family system. Here at Suffolk Family Therapy we are all perfectly imperfect humans who have been through our own “stuff”. We will not judge you, what happened or the aftermath. Our goal is to help you and your family work through what has happened so that you can feel and be the close, loving supportive happy family that you once were or that you long to be. No judgment. Just support and encouragement.
What Therapy Will Look Like for Family Trauma:
Our assessments will focus on both individual and interpersonal consequences of the trauma, including parent-child interactions, discipline, communication and other areas of family functioning. Depending on your family situation, we may recommend individual sessions for multiple family members who are being affected by the aftermath of the trauma, in conjunction with family sessions to work on the interpersonal relationships when everyone is ready. As always our approach will be tailored to each unique family and individual. We have a range of therapists and modalities, including: EMDR, TF-CBT, art therapy, bereavement counseling and couples counseling, to ensure that each family and family member has an approach that works for them.