When a person experiences trauma, it doesn't just affect the individual; it can impact the whole family. Whether the trauma is experienced in childhood or as an adult, it can continue to influence your life at various points. How a person and their family respond to trauma differs from family to family, but it can potentially have profound implications.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor and a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist who founded The Marriage Restoration Project, explains that trauma plays a huge role in relationships. "Not only does childhood trauma impact your relationship with your parent, it unconsciously influences your partner selection and can impact all of your relationships," stated Shlomo Slatkin.
And trauma comes in many forms. It could involve witnessing a traumatic event like a car accident or violent act. Perhaps being involved in a traumatic event like war, a serious accident, being attacked, rape, or a natural disaster. Trauma could also be from an ongoing situation such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or in more recent times, the effects of the pandemic.
We spoke to several professionals about how trauma can impact family dynamics, and what you can do to help support a loved one through trauma. Here is what they had to say.
How Trauma Can Impact Family Dynamics
As mentioned, every person experiences and deals with trauma differently. It's not unusual for a person to go into shock or denial after an incident. However, it can impact your emotions and relationships with family members in the longer term. It can make it difficult to move on with your life.
Terri Kozlowski, certified Life Coach and author of Raven Transcending Fear, is also a survivor of child sexual abuse. Kozlowski explained that trauma changes all aspects of how the family relates to one another because everyone is fearful. "The family is afraid to upset the victim. And the wounded party doesn't want to cause any more issues within the family," Kozlowski advised.
Kristine Ovsepian, who has an M.A. in Psychology, is a Certified Hypnotherapist & Life Coach and authored "Living through Choice," delved into the impact of childhood trauma on adult relationships a little further.
"Your childhood may seem like a lifetime ago. But, for many people, childhood experiences carry into their adulthood, like tattered old photos of the past," said Ovsepian. She discussed that many issues you struggle with today, such as overcoming bad habits or self-destructive patterns, take root in childhood. "And when we don't get past them, or we mask them with the harmful activities, we are burying the trauma deeper. It's sitting there bubbling under the surface like a volcano ready to explode," Ovsepian explained.
Ovsepian discussed that guilt, anger, sadness, and self-loathing are common feelings in people struggling with trauma. And these feelings lead us to behaviors that hold us back from becoming the person we were born to be.
"We find that people tend to look for someone familiar and wind up getting triggered by their spouse in those very areas that they were wounded growing up," added Shlomo Slatkin.
Ovsepian explained that research shows adverse childhood events and emotions can trigger emotional and even physical reactions in our adult selves. "They can be responsible for your current physical and mental health conditions and put you at greater risk for life-threatening illnesses, like heart attacks, strokes, obesity, diabetes, and different types of cancer," Ovsepian stated.
How to Heal If You Have Experienced Trauma
Whether the trauma you have lived through was in childhood or recent, there is support available.
“The first thing to do is get conscious and understand what you are currently experiencing and how it may be related to the past. This is the first step to enable you to live more intentionally. As you do that, you gain more control over how you react to the trigger, and the choices you make,” advised Shlomo Slatkin.
Ovsepian re-iterates this advice stating that in order to let go of all the things that hold us back, we must first acknowledge that they exist. “Many of us carry around our past without even realizing it. Once we know they are there and confront them, we can become better equipped to overcome them and finally let go,” said Ovsepian.
She says that you to think about the baggage that you carry around every day. How does it affect your daily decisions? How is your past holding you back from living in the present and creating a beautiful future?
But, acknowledging the past trauma, and how it is affecting your life, can be a challenging and scary process. “It helps to find a safe and caring therapist and environment where you can put a voice to your self-limiting beliefs and finally release them once and for all. It’s not just about what happens in your time with a therapist, but taking the skills they teach and putting them into practice in your daily life,” Ovsepian
As well as speaking to a counselor, Shlomo Slatkin says that it is important to speak to your family about how you are feeling. “You may want to have a safe conversation with your loved ones about your traumatic experience so they can understand you and have more compassion.
It also helps to articulate your needs around what you want in the present and what things will help you heal and not get reactivated,” said Shlomo Slatkin.
How you can Support a Loved One through Trauma
It can be hard to know what to do if a friend or family member has experienced trauma. You might not want to say or do the wrong thing, but do not know what to do or how to react.
Koslowski advised that this is the time to let the love in your family and friendship flow. She offers the following tips to help support someone through trauma:
Be there- fully present to comfort and support the victim. The family's presence as a witness to the silent suffering of the person who was traumatized does more than the family thinks. There isn't much anyone can physically do, so the family feels helpless. But just sitting with the person and letting them release their emotions, fears, shame, anger, hurt, questions, etc. is a compassionate act. Actively listening to understand what they are feeling is how you love them through the healing process.
Don't perpetuate the injured parties' belief that they are broken or need to be fixed. Despite the trauma, the person is still whole. The pain will cause the wounded to isolate themselves. But that is when they need others to re-inforce they’re not alone. Yes, there is trauma, fractures, and pain, but wholeness is a soulful quality that trauma cannot touch.
Understand that the trauma affects all the members of the family and each individual has to process their pain and heal. If you're the parent, then there is guilt that they could have prevented the traumatic event somehow. If you're a sibling, then there are thoughts that this could have happened to you. Love and support one another. Be fully present with each other and make space for everyone's emotions to be released in a loving environment.
“The important thing to remember is that there is hope,” summarized Ovsepian. “Those issues from your past do not have to continue to shape your future. Working with a trained professional can help reconnect you to your true spiritual self and help you break free from the chains of the past and increase your self-worth.”