The world has changed dramatically over the course of 2020. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, which has caused concerns around our livelihoods and the state of the economy. We have new fears about access to PPE and life-saving medical equipment. How we interact with our friends, family, and larger communities has completely changed. As we move through new stresses, we are still living in a world in which we experience pain, sadness, and fear. The word trauma might bring up images of big events and significant personal loss, but trauma can be smaller life events as well. All the aforementioned stresses are examples of trauma. One of our best defenses against the negative effects of trauma is resiliency. In this post, I'd like to offer some ideas around how families can help each other navigate through these unprecedented times and help each other build resiliency.
What is resiliency?
Resiliency is the ability to adapt to change, stress, crisis, and trauma. Tough times often come with tough feelings, and adversity can bring pain. While many of these events are out of our control, we can control our reactions and responses to gain new insights, skills, and growth.
Why talk about resiliency in families?
When a traumatic event happens, entire families frequently feel the impact. Trauma and stress are not felt in isolation; healing also happens on a larger contextual level. The family and/or parental response can have a significant impact on growth and movement through the event. Family members can help each other through supportive conversations and building new skills.
Family resiliency comes from processing the grief, loss, and any other big feelings that come with trauma or crisis. Creating meaning from the crisis and weaving the crisis into the larger family story is one of many ways that families can experience this healing and growth.
What family resiliency is not:
Resiliency is not the absence of pain or difficulties. We will all experience adversity. Crisis or trauma is not something to “just get over.” Resiliency is not always about returning to former functioning but instead can be about growth and new skills. It is not a destination, but a process; not a trait, but an action. The good news is that it is something that individuals and families can build intentionally.
How do we make meaning out of a traumatic event?
Dr. Froma Walsh (2007) suggests that one of the first steps in creating meaning when something traumatic happens is to have a shared story and to “render” a “trauma experience more comprehensible, meaningful, and manageable as a shared challenge.” To render a story is to tell the story from each perspective, find what you agree on, discuss what you do not agree on, and have a collaborative overall story. Try telling the story to each other from everyone’s perspective. You might even choose to have each person write the story and read the stories out loud. For younger children or for those who have trouble sharing by writing, draw pictures instead. The stories or pictures can be put together into a collage.
In the process of sharing, it is important to allow all feelings. A wide range of emotions may emerge, and some may be surprising. An essential element in making meaning from trauma in the family unit is a mutual trust and an empathetic response to big feelings. Shutting down feelings can lead to many maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse and destructive behavior.
Once thoughts and feelings have been shared, brainstorm as a family your next steps. What needs to happen to move forward? What roles need to be filled? What resources do you need?
As you begin to rebuild from these traumatic events, celebrating small milestones or victories can be helpful. As a family, talk about what those goals might be and fun ways to honor those achievements.
American Psychological Association. (2020, February). Building your resilience. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
Gewirtz, A., Forgatch, M., & Wieling, E. (2008). Parenting Practices as Potential Mechanisms for Child adjustment Following Mass Trauma. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 34(2), 177–192.
Masten, A. S., & Monn, A. R. (2015). Child and Family Resilience: A Call for Integrated Science, Practice, and Professional Training. Family Relations, 64(1), 5–21.
Saltzman, W. R., Pynoos, R. S., Lester, P., Layne, C. M., & Beardslee, W. R. (2013). Enhancing family resilience through family narrative co-construction. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(3), 294–310.
Walsh, F. (2007). Traumatic loss and major disasters: strengthening family and community resilience. Family Process, 46(2), 207–227.
Walsh, F. (2016). Applying a family resilience framework in training, practice, and research: Mastering the art of the possible. Family Process, 55(4), 616–632.