How to Deal with Family Trauma

Family trauma involves an event that completely changes a family's trajectory. In this article, we talk about this issue and how to overcome it.
How to Deal with Family Trauma

Last update: 08 July, 2021

Family trauma is a condition where an entire family is exposed to an unexpected negative situation. In fact, it overwhelms the family members and they’re unable to cope.

One of the main characteristics of trauma is that it marks a turning point. In other words, it changes the previous life trajectory. In fact, in many cases, a completely new psychological state may develop.

Several facts or circumstances can shape trauma. For example, a violent event, a severe addiction problem, a sudden death, a troubling condition in a family member, etc.

Trauma always contains a sudden and surprising element. This is what overwhelms people and affects their abilities to deal with it. Most families have experienced some kind of trauma at one time or another.

A distressed woman.

Family trauma

Often, the narrative and thoughts surrounding the circumstances that caused a trauma ultimately define it. Therefore, its evolution depends to a certain extent on the size of the wound it caused.

In these situations, stress, anxiety, and depression often take hold. This is usually reflected in the way the family members talk about the trauma.

Each individual experiences family trauma in a different way. This can depend on many variables. Among others, they might be the individual’s age, sex, psychological make-up, their role within the family, and the role they played in the trauma itself.

It’s common for everyone in the family to experience anxiety and sadness in the face of the trauma. Furthermore, everyone deals with it in their own individual way.

Family trauma, like individual trauma, can cause guilt and shame. Guilt occurs due to an individual feeling that they should somehow have been able to avoid the circumstances that caused the trauma. Shame usually occurs in the sufferer that experienced the trauma. This is because knowing that others didn’t suffer in the same way makes them feel inferior.

Individual and collective feelings

Although family members experience family trauma collectively, they also suffer individually. Sometimes, there’s a similarity between both types. At other times, there isn’t. There are varying patterns. However, it might be possible for the family to blend their feelings.

A typical situation would be that of suicide. Naturally, this kind of experience impacts everyone. If the victim is a young person, the mother, father, and siblings will all experience it in their own different ways. Similarly, if the victim is a mother or father, their spouse, children, and grandparents will all suffer in their individual ways. In fact, some may even choose to never discuss the subject again, while others do want to talk about it.

As a matter of fact, it’s extremely common for one person to want to talk about the incident while others just want to cry. Furthermore, each person tends to remember things in their own way. However, the family will usually eventually establish some kind of “official truth” regarding the trauma itself.

A sad woman, perhaps suffering family trauma.

What to do?

The effects of a family trauma can be extremely long-lasting. It can even reach generations not yet even born. As a matter of fact, if they aren’t dealt with, they can breed taboos, prejudices, and obstacles. For this reason, as with the cases of other kinds of trauma, the best thing to do is to face the situation head-on. People are often resistant to this, but it’s the only way out.

They should all seek professional help individually. Sometimes, family members might want collective help. However, this shouldn’t preclude individual treatment. This is because addressing the problem as a family may obscure the individual feelings of certain family members.

Obviously, talking about the problem together is extremely positive. However, not everyone will necessarily be ready for it at the same time, and their feelings must be respected. Nevertheless, everyone must eventually talk about it, as silence and repression never work. In the long run, they cause more problems.

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  • Meyer, L. (2007). Trauma familiar y crisis. Jornal de Psicanálise, 40(72), 165-175.