PTSD and Family Systems: The Impact of Traumas Often Overlooked in Family Systems.

When we think of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we often default to soldiers and victims of sexual abuse. While these experiences are certainly among the leading causes of the mental illness, they are not the only type of trauma that will result in PTSD.

The impact of Trauma – albeit Little ‘t’ or Big ‘T’ trauma –  is commonly dismissed when it comes to family systems. When one person experiences trauma–big or small– the entire family system is affected.

Comparing Big T and Little-t Trauma   

Trauma is generally put into two categories: big ‘T’ trauma and little ‘t’ trauma. PTSD diagnoses usually result from a big ‘T’ trauma, or an event that anyone would consider to be extremely distressing: combat and sexual violence, major car accidents, living through natural disasters, and school shootings.  

It is easier to understand how a Big ‘T’ trauma can affect a family. If someone survives a natural disaster, returns from combat, or experiences sexual abuse, a family system is altered by their own witnessing of that trauma happening to their loved one. The family may serve as a resource for support, or as a hurdle that block’s a traumatized member’s recovery.

We can visualize a big T trauma as a single, deep knife wound, and little-t trauma as 15 shallow lacerations from a knife. Both are incredibly painful. If left unresolved or unhealed, these wounds adversely affect the traumatized member. They can also cause the family to become a traumatized system.  

When one family member experiences severe PTSD symptoms, communication styles, discipline, parent-child interactions, sibling interactions and other areas of family functioning may also be negatively affected.

But what about Little ‘t’ trauma?

Little ‘t’ traumas are categorized as stressful events that everyone will experience in their lifetime. These are more “personal” experiences, but their impact over time can be just as wounding. For example, someone with little ‘t’ trauma may experience verbal abuse, bullying, divorce, discrimination, or the loss of a pet.  When a Little ‘t’ trauma occurs, the ability to cope is seriously impacted.

Little ‘t’ traumas tend to be minimized by both society (professionals and family members) and the traumatized member themselves. Because they did not experience a major disaster or life altering event, the trauma is somehow, insignificant.

Little ‘t’ traumas have also been traditionally left out of the conversation when it comes to PTSD.

Why Little ‘t’ trauma is complicated:

  • Family members (and professionals) may reinforce the harmful belief that little ‘t’ trauma is less significant than big “T” trauma by comparing apples to oranges. This harmful belief may look like:
    • “Everyone goes through a breakup, you will get over it.”
    • “It was just a dog, it’s not like your sister died.”
    • “Life is tough. No one makes it out alive.”
    • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • Little ‘t’ trauma is less about what actually happened, and more about how it was experienced by an individual’s body and brain.
  • Recovery from little ‘t’ trauma can be road blocked by:
    • an individual’s inability to explain the significance of the experience to loved ones or friends.
    • Society’s incline to dismiss Little ‘t’ traumas as unimportant or “no big deal”

How Little ‘t’ traumas alter family systems

A family system is like any other system. It has a homeostasis – or a natural incline to maintain a state of equilibrium. For the family to function smoothly, family members must know what to expect from one another and have predictable rules.

When someone experiences a Little ‘t’ trauma, or even more so, multiple Little ‘t’ traumas in a short period of time, their ability to cope and partake in longstanding family roles and rules can be impossible.

For example, a Mom may go through a divorce with her husband. Though the divorce was amicable, and best for everyone in the family, she is now a single mother. Typically, her family role has been a stay at home mom, who takes care of the house and the kids. Now that she is separated, her role has changed dramatically both in society, and at home. She is now a working single mom, who, on top of grieving the loss of her marriage, must also adjust to her new role. Meanwhile her children will still expect (unconsciously) her to continue her role as their caretaker – making dinner, cleaning the house, driving them to extra-curricular activities and so on. Her family also expects (unconsciously) her to be emotionally available to support them, attend social gatherings, etc. She feels as though she must meet the needs of not just her children, but maintain a “status quo” because “people get divorced all the time”.

When one family member experiences trauma, the entire family is affected. At Doyen Consulting Group, we view the entire family system as our client. Though our efforts for intervention and recovery may be focused on The Priority Family Member, we believe that identifying the repercussions from trauma on the families is vital to prevent further traumatization and create sustainable change.  

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