International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma to One Family Member Affects Entire Family

Posted 1 July 2002 in StressPoints by Briana S. Nelson and Kami L. Schwerdtfeger, Kansas State University

Partners, parents and siblings often must endure the effects when a family member is traumatized. The family may serve as a resource for support or an obstacle that blocks a traumatized member's recovery (Compas & Epping, 1993). Families may become "trauma-organized systems" (Banyard, Englund & Rozelle, 2001), with patterns related to the traumatic experience manifested on a family system level.

When children suffer from the effects of trauma exposure, the reactions of parents may negatively impact children more than the direct trauma exposure (Steinberg, 1998). Parents may be overwhelmed by the trauma and minimize the effects (Marans, Berkman, & Cohen, 1996). Parents' own past traumatic experiences might account for this, or parents might feel inadequate in helping their children cope with the trauma.

Steinberg (1998) identified two ways that children are affected when a parent is traumatized: a) witnessing a parent's trauma (e.g., domestic violence, sexual assault); or b) experiencing posttraumatic symptoms of the parent (e.g., flashbacks, startle responses). Literature on children of trauma survivors primarily has focused on the children of war survivors (e.g., Bar-On, 1996; Danieli, 1998; Rosenheck & Fontana, 1998). Other literature has addressed the intergenerational transmission of abuse (Buchanan, 1996; McCloskey & Bailey, 2000) and the effects of community violence (Dulmus and Wodarski. 2000). The general conclusion from this literature indicates that depression, anxiety, psychosomatic problems, aggression, guilt and related issues may be common in the offspring of trauma survivors (Felsen, 1998).

Limited literature has focused on the impact of trauma on the sibling subsystem. One area, sibling abuse, has remained largely unaddressed in literature (Wiehe, 1997). Children who suffered the loss of a sibling unexpectedly (through accident or murder) may be at risk of developing PTSD or other symptomatology (Applebaum & Burns, 1991; Freeman, Shaffer & Smith, 1996). If parents suffer severe trauma from the loss of a child, posttraumatic reactions in siblings may be overlooked (Applebaum & Burns, 1991).

When a trauma survivor experiences severe PTSD symptoms, there may be negative effects on other family members. Clinicians and researchers need to recognize the impact on the family unit when a family member is traumatized. Assessments should focus on both individual and interpersonal sequelae from trauma, including parent-child interactions, discipline, communication and other areas of family functioning. Identifying the repercussions from trauma on families is critical to prevent further traumatization.

References
Applebaum, D.R. & Burns, G. L. (1991). Unexpected childhood death: Posttraumatic stress disorder in surviving siblings and parents. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 20, 114-120.
Banyard, V. L., Englund, D.W. & Rozelle, D. (2001). Parenting the traumatized child: Attending to the needs of nonoffending caregivers of traumatized children. Psychotherapy, 38, 74-87.
Bar-On, D. (1996). Attempting to overcome the intergenerational transmission of trauma. In R. J. Apfel & B. Simon (Eds.), Minefields in Their Hearts: The Mental Health of Children in War and Communal Violence (pp. 165-188). New Haven, Conn.: Yale.
Buchanan, A. (1996). Cycles of Child Maltreatment: Facts, Fallacies and Interventions. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
Compas, B.E. & Epping, J. E. (1993). Stress and coping in children and families: Implications for children coping with disaster. In C. E. Saylor (Ed.), Children and Disasters (pp. 11-28). New York: Plenum.
Danieli, Y. (Ed.), International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. New York: Plenum.
Dulmus, C. & Wodarski, J. (2000). Trauma-related symptomatology among children of parents victimized by urban community violence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 272-277.
Felsen, I. (1998). Transgenerational transmission of effects of the Holocaust: The North American research perspective. In Y. Danieli (Ed.), International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma (pp. 43-68). New York: Plenum.
Freeman, L.N., Shaffer, D. & Smith, H. (1996). Neglected victims of homicide: The needs of young siblings of murder victims. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 66, 337-345.
Marans, S., Berkman, M. & Cohen, D. (1996). Child development and adaptation to catastrophic circumstances. In R. J. Apfel & B. Simon (Eds.), Minefields in Their Hearts: The Mental Health of Children in War and Communal Violence (pp. 104-127). New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
McCloskey, L.A. & Bailey, J. A. (2000). The intergenerational transmission of risk for child sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15, 1019-1035.
Rosenheck, R. & Fontana, A. (1998). Warrior fathers and warrior sons: Intergenerational aspects of trauma. In Y. Danieli (Ed.), International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma (pp. 225-242). New York: Plenum.
Rosenthal, P.A. & Doherty, M.B. (1984). Serious sibling abuse by preschool children. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 23, 186-190.
Steinberg, A. (1998). Understanding the secondary traumatic stress of children. In C. R. Figley (Ed.), Burnout in Families: The Systemic Costs of Caring (pp. 29-46). Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press.
Wiehe, V.R. (1997). Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.