mother and daughter dealing with family trauma. find family counseling near Smithtown. NY

How Does Trauma to One Family Member Affect the Entire Family Unit?

When a family member is traumatized it can have a ripple effect on the entire family unit. The nuclear family being parents, partners and siblings will often endure the shock to the system when one member of the family experiences trauma. These family members can either serve to be supports or obstacles to the member of the family that experienced trauma. At their worst the family unit itself can become a system in which the traumatized individual is essentially retraumatized continually based on their families treatment towards them, opinions about them or new role they cast for them after the traumatic experience occurs.

What Does This Look Like When a Child is the Victim of Trauma?

A man with his children.

Children are incredibly resilient beings and can overcome trauma or have the effects significantly minimized by having supportive, empowering and understanding parents. When the parents' response to the traumatic situation is negative it can be more traumatized to the child then the direct trauma exposure.

For example, if a teenage girl is raped by a stranger and the parents belittel and blame the teenager for “being stupid”, not “knowing better”, dressing a certain way or being in a certain place- this inevitably leaves that child feeling like they are to blame for what happened to them and something is inherently wrong with them to have caused such a thing to occur. This can leave that teenage girl feeling hopeless, lost, unsupported and very alone.

If she then begins to act out and becomes promiscuous, or her grades drop because she has PTSD and cannot focus as well, or become irritable and has more outbursts towards the parents, the child again will likely be blamed for their behavior. All of her cries for support, her showing she is struggling will only continue to serve the narrative that that child is inherently bad, defective, and unlovable. The parents' reaction to her only continues to show her the world is unsafe, unsupportive, and people in general are not to be counted on or trusted. 

Consequences of When it is Not Discussed

Well meaning parents who struggle to cope with what happened to their child may shy away from conversations about how it’s affecting the child and carry on as if nothing happened- minimizing the effects of what happened to that child. This can foster children feeling all those same feelings, unloved, unsupported but also fosters this idea that “it’s in my head”, “it wasn’t that bad” or “I have no reason to still be upset/sad/angry” causing them to bury their shame, guilt and fears as it is not welcomed to discuss in the household. 

In both cases, parents' own trauma may account for their responses. A parent may be too triggered by that child’s sexual abuse to listen to them discuss it causing scenario 2. Alternatively, the parent could have their own history of sexual assault and blame themselves so they project their anger and blame on the child as they never fully coped with what happened to them. Furthermore, a parent’s lack of experience dealing with trauma themselves can cause them to feel inadequate in supporting their child in coping with trauma.

What Effect Can a Traumatized Parent Have on Their Children?

Parents fighting in front of their daughter.

There are two main ways that children are affected when a parent is traumatized:

  1. Witnessing a parent’s trauma.
  2. Experiencing posttraumatic symptoms of the parent.

1. Witnessing a Parents Trauma

Witnessing could be through a child witnessing domestic violence or sexual assault of their parent. Children who witness a parent’s trauma may feel fearful and anxious. They may always be on guard, wondering when the next violent event will happen, waiting for the next shoe to drop. This can be seen in different behaviors depending on the child’s age.

Family Trauma Signs in Children under 5:

Signs in Elementary School Children:

Signs in Teens:

It is important to note that there is a distinction between common behaviors for girls and boys- though this does not mean it cannot present in the opposite way. Boys are more likely to engage in oppositional, aggressive, and what we would generally call “acting-out” activities. Girls are more likely to “act-inward” and thus struggle with low-self esteem, depression, self-harming, and socially isolative behaviors.

2. Experiencing posttraumatic symptoms of the parent

person sitting on a couch crying

When individuals struggle with PTSD they can have a range of symptoms that have an effect on their children and spouse. The 2 most common that affect the family unit are: re-experiencing symptoms and avoidance and numbing symptoms. 

Re-Experiencing Symptoms:

PTSD can cause flashbacks and/or nightmares which are what we call re-experiencing symptoms. These symptoms can occur quickly and seemingly to bystanders as “out of nowhere”. They usually bring with them strong feelings and emotions of guilt, shame, anger, grief or fear. For some individuals the flashbacks can be so severe they feel as if the memory is occurring in real time. To children and partners this can be quite scary. The parent’s behavior is unpredictable. They may not understand why the family member is acting this way or what caused it. It can cause children to worry about that parent, feeling that their parent is too fragile to take care of them. For a partner it can put them in a caregiver role and make them feel hopeless about how to get their partner back to who they were before the trauma. 

Avoidance and Numbing Symptoms:

It is common for anyone experiencing PTSD to try to avoid trauma reminders and/or triggers. This may cause them to avoid people, places and things that remind them of their trauma. It can also cause them difficulty in experiencing joy and pleasure in things they used to love. Leaving that family member to feel detached or cut-off from their partner and children. Avoidance and Numbing can leave partners and children feeling unloved, unsupported and unimportant. They may be hesitant to go to family events, holidays, kids games and struggle to connect with and engage with their loved ones like they used to. 

Because the re-experiencing symptoms are so upsetting, people with PTSD try not to think about the event. If you have PTSD, you may also try to avoid places and things that remind you of the trauma. Or you may not feel like doing things that used to be fun, like going to the movies or your child's event. It can also be hard for people with PTSD to have good feelings. You may feel "cut off" from family and children. As a result, children may feel that the parent with PTSD does not care about them.

How Does Trauma of One Sibling Effects the Other Siblings?

In my work, I have seen children whose siblings have experienced trauma struggle with many of the same trauma reactions and negative core beliefs. This is often due to parents focusing on trying to help the traumatized child and thus the sibling feeling neglected or pushed aside and unsupported. These children then tend to have a lot of the same acting-out or acting-in behaviors we described above. Many of them struggle with core beliefs of “I am responsible” “I have to be in control”; “I am unimportant/unlovable/defective”. This also occurs in children who are terrified of what happened to their sibling, happening to them or anyone else they love. This can make a child chronically anxious and fearful of the world.

Where to Start if You're Struggling With Family Trauma

Mother and daughter embracing.

If this is all feeling a bit “close to home” you may want to reach out for support for yourself and your loved ones. Therapy will focus not just on the individual who has experienced trauma but also incorporate family sessions so that we work though any re-traumatizing interactions that are occurring within the family system. Here at Long Island EMDR we are all perfectly imperfect humans who have been through our own “stuff”. We will not judge you, what happened or the aftermath. Our goal is to help you and your family work through what has happened so that you can feel and be the close, loving supportive happy family that you once were or that you long to be. No judgment. Just support and encouragement.

What Therapy Will Look Like for Family Trauma:

Our assessments will focus on both individual and interpersonal consequences of the trauma, including parent-child interactions, discipline, communication and other areas of family functioning. Depending on your family situation, we may recommend individual sessions for multiple family members who are being affected by the aftermath of the trauma, in conjunction with family sessions to work on the interpersonal relationships when everyone is ready. As always our approach will be tailored to each unique family and individual. We have a range of therapists and modalities, including: EMDR, TF-CBT, art therapy, bereavement counseling and couples counseling, to ensure that each family and family member has an approach that works for them.

When someone survives a traumatic event, it can be beneficial to have both personal and professional support through recovery. Leaning on personal supports can be just as important as speaking with a therapist, but as a friend or family member looking to provide support, it can be difficult to find the right words to say. These conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult to navigate, but it’s important to choose your words wisely as to not further harm or re-traumatize the survivor.

In this blog post, I list a number of phrases you should avoid when speaking with trauma survivors, as well as a few things you can say in order to best support your loved one. Let’s start with the former.

What Not to Say to a Person with Trauma

“Why didn’t you say anything at that time?” 

It’s incredibly common for survivors of trauma not to disclose what they’ve been through right away. Sometimes it takes years to work up the courage and speak with someone about it. Sometimes people don’t have any memories of their trauma, and sometimes these memories come back way later on in life. 

It can also be very painful to talk about past trauma, especially when it feels like no one else can possibly understand what you’re going through. If a loved one has opened up about past trauma, don’t question why it took them as long as it did to speak up. Simply be grateful they feel comfortable enough to talk to you now, and try to support them as best as you can. 

“I know what you’re going through”

Chances are, no you don’t! Unless you went through the exact same trauma, and have the same physical and emotional responses to trauma as your loved one, you do not know what they’re going through. Everyone responds to trauma differently, and comments like this tend to come across as minimizing the effects of the trauma. For the survivor, this trauma is theirs, and while it may not be something they are proud of, they are most likely working on owning their experience and their emotions. It’s important not to take that away from them.

“Let it go” or “Get over it”

Unfortunately, these are words that many survivors have heard from someone they’re close with. It is common for survivors of trauma to be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and because PTSD is an invisible wound, it is often misunderstood as something that is being exaggerated. Just because you cannot see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. 

There is no ‘just get over it’ with trauma. Survivors do not choose to have these symptoms, and symptoms can be intrusive and incredibly debilitating. By saying things like ‘let it go’ or ‘get over it,’ you’re telling them that their feelings are too much, too dramatic, and taking too long to resolve. Each healing journey is unique, and you have no way of knowing how much work someone has already put in to get to where they are now. 

“Did that really happen?”

It is common for survivors of trauma to experience shame and guilt throughout the healing process. Many people blame themselves for what happened even if it may seem clear to you who is actually to blame in the situation. By questioning if it really happened, you’re validating and reinforcing any self-doubts the survivor has experienced over the years. This will ultimately slow the healing process, and maybe even cause your loved one to regress on their healing journey.

“It could have been worse”

This is another comment that minimizes the effects of the trauma and sends the message that the person is overreacting. What is traumatizing for one person may not be for someone else, and that is okay. Each person responds to trauma differently, but there’s absolutely no sense in comparing one trauma to another. Any survivor is hurting and trying to heal. It does not matter whose trauma was ‘worse.’ It can trigger feelings like shame and guilt, and really hinder the survivors healing journey.

“You should do/try _______”

As a loved one, the most important role you can play is being there for support, not giving advice on how to heal. Even if you’ve gone through something similar and feel like you understand, there’s no guarantee that what worked for you will work for them. And if they end up taking the advice you give but it doesn’t work out as they hoped, this can really hinder the healing process, and may even impact your relationship with your loved one. 

What Can You Say Instead?

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Oftentimes with trauma, survivors lose a sense of being in control when they went through that situation. If they feel forced to talk about it with loved ones, it can be triggering and bring up all of those old feelings of not being in control. Asking this question gives the survivor a chance to decide what they would like to do. Maybe they’re not feeling up to talking about it right now, and that’s okay. Giving them a sense of control in regards to this topic can be really helpful for their healing process. 

“I hear you”

One of the most difficult parts of the healing journey is feeling like you’re going through this alone. Sometimes being there with a listening ear is the best support you can provide your loved ones. Try practicing Active Listening. Active Listening means making a conscious effort to hear, understand, and retain the information being relayed to you. It does not always mean you have a response or advice to give. Instead, pay attention, show that you’re listening with feedback, and ask questions if there’s something you don’t fully understand. Simply saying, “I hear you” can mean the world. 

Are you a trauma survivor, or looking to better support a loved one struggling through their recovery? We can help. Give our office a call at (631) 503-1539. 

About the Author, Jennifer Tietjen, LMSW

Jennifer Tietjen is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) at Long Island EMDR and is currently receiving supervision towards her clinical license under Kristy Casper, LCSW. She helps clients by providing the support, acceptance, and empathy they need as they face challenging life experiences. Jenn is passionate about helping clients overcome past trauma and make positive change in their lives. She is trained in EMDR therapy and is currently focusing her future training and experience on women’s issues. This includes maternal health concerns such as antepartum and postpartum depression and anxiety, and reproductive health issues including infertility.

usercrossmenu linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram