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Helping Families Cope with Trauma

Trauma, whether experienced by one or more family members, will take a toll on the entire family. Whether the one-time or sustained trauma was experienced in the distant past or more recently, seeking professional assistance and a strong support system is crucial to fend off its crippling effects.

How Do We Define Trauma?

According to Kathryn Millan, MA, LPC/MHSP, traumatic incidents can be seen as “uncontrollable, distressing events that leave a lasting imprint on the people they affect.” She notes that those who experience a traumatic event may continue to lead what appears to be a normal life, but the event may affect their mood, motivation or relationships.

Trauma can be experienced in various situations and durations. For example, a person may be involved in a divorce. People can be traumatized by witnessing a violent crime or surviving a catastrophic event, such as a house fire, tornado or fatal car accident.

Then there is complex trauma. According to Millan, “Complex trauma occurs when traumatic incidents are repeated, or when new, unique traumas continually occur.” This can happen due to generational poverty, during war and when families live in neighborhoods where addiction, violence and illness are common.

Generational Effect of Trauma

David Sack, M.D., writes, “The behavioral changes that can come with emotional trauma are not only difficult to overcome, they can be passed down from generation to generation.” In some instances, simply living in an environment in which children are constantly exposed to despair, erratic moods and talk of suicide or self-harm can cause a form of trauma.

The effect of trauma experienced by parents, however, can have an even greater impact on their children. In a study performed on mice, researchers demonstrated that a traumatic event may affect metabolism. Not only are these metabolic effects long-lasting, they also have proven to be hereditary, even persisting into the third generation.

These troubling findings suggest that children of soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop what is termed secondary PTSD. Children in families where one or both parents have been involved in war may begin to exhibit the same negative behaviors as the parents.

This study has been reinforced by Dr. Birgit Kracke, a medical specialist for psychiatry and psychotherapy. While working with refugees, she reports, “Studies show that mothers who are subjected to severe stress (e.g. flight, violence, fear) during pregnancy transmit increased levels of stress hormones to their babies through the umbilical cord. Those hormones induce the growth of the baby’s ‘stress hormone center,’ which will automatically create higher levels of stress hormones in the baby, possibly for the rest of its life.”

Effect on the Family

When one member of a family experiences traumatic events, the entire family is likely to suffer the consequences.

When the victim is a parent. Even if children do not witness the violence or trauma experienced by their parent, they will be affected. As Dr. Sack indicated, the behavior and the metabolism of a traumatized parent will have a negative impact on children. Christal Presley, the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, experienced PTSD symptoms, likely due to her father’s threats of suicide and feelings of despair. In an interview, she said, “That’s crazy. How can I have symptoms of a war I never fought in?”

Children who witness firsthand a violent or traumatic event involving a family member will most likely display the same emotions as the victim, such as aggression, depression, withdrawal, anxiety or guilt.

When the victim is a child. Children who are not mature enough to describe incidents of abuse or trauma may exhibit uncharacteristic behaviors of aggression or withdrawal, making it difficult to determine what happened. And even when children are old enough to verbalize traumatic incidents, they may be reluctant to relive the stress-filled moments, or they may have been threatened by the perpetrator with harm to them or loved ones if they report what transpired.

One of the most difficult issues for parents of a traumatized child to face is a sense of guilt that they could not protect their child from harm. The sense of helplessness and loss can exacerbate the situation and cause parents to minimize the effect of the abuse or trauma. In some cases, parents’ past traumas can be triggered, causing them to relive their own responses and feel overwhelmed by their children’s experiences. Unfortunately, because children’s bodies and minds learn protective behaviors in response to traumatic events, it is difficult for them to abandon these behaviors or habits even when the source of trauma has been removed.

Coping With Trauma

Although family members who have built a strong support system for each other can provide a safe haven for victims, coping with trauma often requires professional assistance.

Other responses to trauma can be practiced by friends and family members, including:

  • Be available, both physically and emotionally.
  • Help the victim avoid triggers by being aware of patterns and repeated responses.
  • Listen, even when the conversation is difficult or uncomfortable.
  • Be patient, even if you have heard the same story multiple times or behaviors do not change.
  • Reassure the victim that they are no longer in danger.

In addition to these informal approaches, a trained professional has the skills to analyze the traumatic event and its effect on the client, determine a course of action, and evaluate the outcomes. A good counselor also will consider the effects of trauma on the entire family and recommend practical applications of proven practices to address both the victim and the support system.

The Master of Education in Counseling and Development with a Specialization in Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling degree from Lamar University will prepare you to practice evidence-based counseling. Taught by highly credentialed faculty, this sixty-credit-hour program includes one residency, a fifteen-week practicum and a fifteen-week internship, all designed to prepare you to become a Licensed Professional Counselor or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Texas. In as few as thirty months, you will be prepared to work effectively with individuals and families affected by violence, war and other types of trauma.

Learn more about Lamar University’s online M.Ed. in Counseling and Development with a Specialization in Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling program.


Psychology Today: When Emotional Trauma Is a Family Affair

Hartgrove Behavioral System: Trauma and Its Effect on Relationships

Refugee Trauma Help: About Trauma Parenting a Child Who Has Experience Trauma

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies: Trauma to One Family Member Affects Entire Family


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