The ABC-X Model of Family Crisis and Coping

The ABC-X Model of Family Crisis and Coping
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 06 January, 2023

Just as people face adverse situations, families (understood as a system or organization) do too. For example, changes in their life cycles, illnesses, separations, unexpected events, etc. Indeed, there are several circumstances that can upset the balance of the family. Therefore, it’s important to know how to protect the family nucleus from the impact of a crisis. In this regard, the ABC-X model offers some interesting explanations and answers.

Stress is unavoidable and all families will experience it at certain points. However, not all of them are equally vulnerable or end up entering a state of crisis. In fact, the outcome depends on the attitudes and resources they possess. It’s these mediating factors that we’ll talk about below.

Parents with upset son
When a stressor throws a family off balance, a crisis occurs.

The ABC-X model of family stress

When talking about how family systems deal with crises, we must mention Reuben Hill’s ABC-X model. The American sociologist is a pioneer in this field of study. He developed a proposal that made it possible to identify vulnerability to stress in families and to understand why crises are triggered and how they react to them.

Not every stressor leads to a crisis. It’s only triggered when a family system loses its balance, can’t recover its stability, and is forced to make important changes and transformations in its structure and functioning. However, what factors cause this to happen? According to the ABC-X model, there are three elements involved:

(A) Stressful event

This is the kind of situation for which a family isn’t prepared and which places a demand on it and its members. These stressors can be of an extremely diverse nature and aren’t the same in all families.

They can range from unexpected situations, such as the death of one of the members or the loss of employment, to sought-after decisions, such as a separation or divorce, the return to work of the mother, or a transfer to another country. Therefore, it’s not always a question of adversity, but rather of a novel event that generates a certain imbalance.

(B)  Family resources

This second point refers to the resources and capacities available to the family to respond to and deal with the stressor. These include, among others:

  • Family flexibility and adaptability.
  • The quality of the emotional ties between its members. Also, the health of the marriage and the relationship between parents and children.
  • Communication and problem-solving skills.
  • Financial resources.
  • Previous experience of success in other crises.

(C)  Definition of the event

Lastly, the third factor is the definition or interpretation that the family makes of the event. Do they see it as a catastrophe, a reasonable demand, or an opportunity to learn and grow stronger? Do they maintain an optimistic or pessimistic attitude? In short, to what degree do they perceive the situation to threaten the status, goals, and objectives of their family?

The combination of these three elements results in the X factor. It indicates the amount of stress felt by the family and determines whether or not a crisis is triggered. If the demands of the moment exceed the resources, there’s great tension and a sense of blockage that makes it unfeasible for the family to continue functioning as it has been to date.

Subsequent contributions to the ABC-X model

Hill’s ABC-X model gave way to a good amount of research that allowed this model to be refined and clarified with contributions from other authors. Thus, new concepts and constructs have been included in the model. These are also relevant to understanding the process of coping with a crisis.

Boundary ambiguity

This concept concerns the perception and clarity that the family has regarding the constitution of the system. In other words, what they understand as the meaning of family. Also, if there’s certainty regarding the roles that correspond to each family member, and what kind of openness exists for accepting new stimuli.

Buildup of stress

Stress is cumulative and various demanding events may be added to a system (whether due to external causes or due to intra-family tensions).

When several events impact simultaneously, resources are depleted and adaptation to stress becomes far more complex. Indeed, if there’s a significant event that hasn’t been previously resolved, there’ll be no room in the family to adjust to any new issues that may appear.

With this more complete perspective, the Double ABCX model of family adjustment and adaptation, formulated by McCubbin and Patterson in the 1980s, was developed. It proposed that there are two phases that are set in motion when a family has to face stress.

On the one hand, when only minor and simple changes in family functioning are required, an adjustment process occurs. On the other, when profound transformations happen and an important reorganization of the family is necessary, we speak of adaptation. Whether one mechanism or another is required to restore equilibrium will depend on the factors mentioned.

son angry with his father
The Double ABCX model of family adjustment and adaptation was formulated by McCubbin and Patterson.

The ABC-X model helps families deal with crises

Beyond being a theoretical proposal, the ABC-X model has important and useful applications. In fact, it allows us to dissect the process of adaptation to stress and see which factors and elements families have control over or can act upon.

For example, it can be useful for families facing a migration process or for those whose child is diagnosed with autism. That’s because it demonstrates the importance of making an appropriate interpretation of the event and generating healthy coping strategies.

Finally, thanks to this model, professionals from different fields are more prepared to assist families in these uncertain moments.

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  • Gonzalez, G. C., & Lemos, M. (2017). Modelo doble ABCX: dos familias de hijos con trastorno del espectro autista. Katharsis, (25), 22-36.
  • McCubbin, H. I., & Patterson, J. M. (2014). The family stress process: The double ABCX model of adjustment and adaptation. In Social stress and the family (pp. 7-37). Routledge.
  • Musitu, G. Buelga, S., Lila, M.S., & Cava, M.J. (2004). Familia y adolescencia: un modelo de análisis e intervención psicosocial. Síntesis

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