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By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Picture of a broken wooden bench, falling onto the ground

It’s 3 am and she has just gotten in bed after a very long process of getting her 2-year-old back to sleep after his tube feeding. He has been diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that came after nearly a year of countless tests and doctor appointments and stress that she has not had the opportunity to process. She lies down in the bed and puts the covers over her body. She hears the vibration of her cell phone against her nightstand and her heart begins to race. She reaches for the phone and answers. The person on the other end tells her the news that she has come to fear almost nightly. Her husband has been in a horrible car wreck. He was drunk. It was his fault. He may not make it. She experiences a hundred emotions all in one minute.

Her first child was born while her husband was deployed. It was very soon after his birth that she realized something just wasn’t right with him. In the 10 months that her husband was deployed, she learned to become a mother, a nurse, a doctor, a speech therapist, a physical therapist, and an occupational therapist. She also learned to become an advocate and fighter for her child. She was relieved at the idea that she could share some of these new job titles and responsibilities with her husband upon his return. But, she knew the moment she saw him that something had happened. He was not the same man she sent overseas.

Within a couple of months of his return from deployment, her husband was diagnosed with PTSD. He was relying heavily on alcohol to mute the sounds and sights he was experiencing post-combat. He was spending most evenings away from home. She was alone, afraid, and trying her very best to hold everything together.

Although the story depicted above is not a true story, there are certainly many families that have experienced very similar scenarios. As military service providers, we have a duty to assist these families when they are in crisis or experience trauma. The two questions I would like to address in this blog are 1.) What do we need to think about when it comes to crisis/trauma and family? 2.) How do we help these families?

The Impact of Crisis/Trauma

  1.  Not all families experience trauma the same  Just like no two individuals react the same to situations, neither do families. Some families may kick into “high gear” and face their problems head on whereas some may do the exact opposite.
  2. All families are shaped by their experiences Whether purposefully or not, experience shapes us. Families can be shaped negatively and/or positively by their experiences. How families are shaped will impact the way they live indefinitely.
  3. Some families have more than one crisis/trauma at the same time  It is important to remember that life does not delicately and kindly place hard times in our laps; nor does it only create one problem at a time. Families may be having more than one crisis or difficulty at a time. In fact, trauma can lead to crisis and vice versa. There can be a ripple effect that takes place.
  4. Resources and support systems can lessen the hardships  When support systems and resources are put in place, the effects of the events can feel less cumbersome and stressful for the family.
  5. Families will always remain connected, even if they physically fall apart  Although some families may end up separating or splitting as a result of what has affected them, they will always be connected in some way by the fact that they were once a family.

How do We Help?

  1. Listen  It may sound simple. But giving families an opportunity to be heard can make a huge difference for them. Their experience is like no one else’s even though you may have heard a similar story. Provide your families with the opportunity to share their stories and always listen to what they have to say.
  2. Lean forward – This is literal and figurative. Some of the stories that families may share with us can be hard for us to hear. They may even be things that are hard for us to process as humans. But, we must always remember that the therapy we provide is about them, not us. We must lean forward so that they never feel judged or criticized.
  3. Provide resources – Always, always, always have a plethora of resources to share with your clients. You never know which may be helpful to them and which may completely change or impact their lives and what they are going through. You can never have too many resources in your pocket!
  4. Create a safe environment – If families don’t feel safe in the therapy room, then they won’t be successful and neither will you. Gauge their comfort level and adjust accordingly. When we feel safe, we are more likely to open up and create change for ourselves.
  5. Ensure that no one is in danger – In volatile situations, it is always important to constantly make sure that everyone is safe. Assess and reassess situations and ensure that every member of the family is safe.

This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, a social media and webinar coordination specialist for OneOp. Her team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families.  Find out more about OneOp on our Facebook and Twitter.

Blog Image: Photo titles End of Days by Greg from Flickr