Very few among us will go through life without experiencing some sort of trauma. As uncomfortable as it is, it remains part of our human existence. But while trauma may be unavoidable, our responses to that trauma are what matter most. By examining the ways in which we react to trauma both as individuals and as part of our family systems, we can begin to understand our behaviors and move toward more healthy and productive relationships.
Simply put, trauma occurs when an individual is exposed to or witnesses a horrific event. It’s an emotional response an individual has to experiencing or witnessing an event such as an accident, assault, rape, or death. In other words, trauma happens when a person’s coping mechanisms are overwhelmed by the event and the person has trouble absorbing what they just witnessed or experienced.
Trauma is also subjective in that it can vary from individual to individual. So depending on factors such as someone’s temperament and resilience, two people can witness or experience the same event and have very different responses. This is why it can be difficult for people to identify trauma in others and why working through trauma can take longer for some people than it does for others.
Experiencing my own trauma
I was basically a homeless street kid for four years of my life before I joined the Marine Corps, and during that time, I witnessed many things. But for me, actually witnessing those events was not as important as how they affected me later on. For a long time, I really struggled with being able to trust, with viewing the world around me as safe, with maintaining relationships, and with forming deeper relationships because of my inability to trust and truly connect.
So my own personal traumatic experiences really led to familial dysfunction and dysfunction in my relationships. In other words, I struggled with the nouns: people, places, and things. For a long time I could not understand why I struggled so much with my own personal recovery from substances. But eventually I uncovered that clue, that I was still responding to a lot of the traumatic events from my childhood and late adolescence..
How trauma affects families
Because no two individuals experience an event the same way, you will have some disparity in how people respond to future triggering events. In other words, Person A may have a very difficult time processing a certain event while Person B may not see it as problematic at all. I often see this when dealing with issues of attachment, particularly in families where the parents are divorced. Where one child may have suffered significantly, another sibling may have been able to take the divorce in stride. The question then is: how do they reconcile that and how do they communicate that within the family?
Trauma affects the way people communicate within families, including the secrets we keep and the secrets we share. The inability to connect and effectively communicate is probably the most significant impact of trauma in a family.
Substance use can traumatize families
Most families don’t want to hear, or have no idea, about how deeply substance use can impact the family system. So when I work with families, it often becomes a matter of doing some real deep assessment of what’s going on within their system. Once we’ve identified the core issues, it’s my job then to highlight and explain the fact that they are simply having normal responses to abnormal events.
Families tend to shame themselves for their responses to an individual with substance use issues, and they also tend to shame the individual. As a result, their relationships suffer. None of the families I work with come to treatment skipping and smiling. They are truly struggling and often feel like they’re stuck. By shaming each other and yelling at each other, they are actually building more scars as they try to interact with this problem. So my job is to help a family take a step back and look at the bigger picture to see how they’re interacting and how they may be building on their own traumatic family experience. From there we can begin to identify solutions and work to rebuild those relationships.
By: Roberto Rodriguez, MA, LMFT, LADC, Family Recovery Resource Experts