How Does Trauma Affect a Family Unit?

Trauma can be described as a life altering situation that can happen to any member of a family. These events are physical, mental, or emotional. Many families experience some kind of traumatic event, and it can apply to any and all members.

The What

Family trauma can often be classified as generational trauma, meaning trauma that passes through the family tree. It can be harder to navigate since everyone experiences and copes with the events at different times and by different means. Some may never address it.

As this problem grows, it can have a snowball effect, impacting more and more people within the family unit. It can play a significant role in current family relationships, as well as create a predisposition for future dynamics. The passing down through potential generations can result in some deep-rooted patterns. The longer this goes on, the harder it can be to alter the course.

The Who

Immediate Family

After any event, those closest to you may be the most likely affected. Those in the same household have much more frequent interactions and direct access to how coping techniques are used, or not used.

This stress could shift the bond between immediate family members. This could mean changes in the parent-child relationship or sibling to sibling relationship.

Extended Family

Effects of a traumatic event may be contained to some degree within the main family unit, but as normal functioning changes, will carry into the extended relatives as well. While some may try to shield their family from circumstances and responses, it is unlikely that this tactic can be foolproof.

Intimate relationships

Trauma experiences can induce feelings of doubt, avoidance, and disconnect as defense mechanisms. Such behaviors will make it difficult to form healthy relationships and as a result could lead to an unhealthy intimate relationship.

The How

With any traumatic experience, the path through the event has two outcomes. Families can face a negative outcome, forcing conflict and division among members, causing a decline in functioning. On the other hand, families can find themselves coming together in a more positive outcome.

Those who don’t have the tools to handle the stress and heavy emotions after such an experience may feel overwhelmed, burdened, or isolated. Over time, the resilience may fade and family members may feel depleted of energy.

For example, parents trying to shield their children may become emotionally unavailable. They may be less aware of the child’s needs or unable to help them cope. Children who carried this burden in their youth may inadvertently project this onto their own children as they grow older. Partners may struggle with communication and find trust issues within their relationships.

The other, more hopeful route is that the family unit finds themselves growing closer to overcome the trauma experience. An event could strengthen the family bond as they process emotions and feelings together. It could provide a “new lease on life” outlook, increasing communication and appreciation for each other. Family members may find themselves reaching out to extended family to bring in additional support.

The Future

At the end of the day, the word family carries ideals of protection and support. If the traumatic event causes a member to feel alone or unsafe, it can be a vicious cycle of harmful effects passed down from generation to generation, from inside the family unit to the outside.

Just because one person in the family may experience stress, PTSD, or another mental health struggle, it is important to remember they may not be the one with whom it started. If you find that you or your loved one is struggling with trauma exposure, please contact me to help you return to the healthy path with trauma therapy or anxiety treatment.