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.

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