In a study of experiences that disrupt life in general, not just family life (Holmes and Rahe 1967), forty-three stress-producing events were ranked on a scale from 0 to 100, with a score of 100 representing the greatest amount of stress. It is noteworthy that eight of the twelve most stressful events directly involve family life. The twelve events are death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, detention in jail or other institution, death of a close family member, major personal injury or illness, marriage, being fired, marital reconciliation, retirement, major changes in the health or behavior of a family member, and pregnancy. Obviously, the major source of personal stress for most people is the family.
A series of stressful events can have a cumulative effect on the family system, especially if the family is unable or unwilling to deal with each event as it occurs. Stress can build up, and eventually a relatively minor incident can burst the floodgates. For example, a teenager who has been irresponsible at home may easily meet his parent’s fury when he comes home drunk. A family under financial strain may react out of all proportion to their teen’s minor accident because it puts undue stress on the budget.
Resources A family’s ability to cope with stress relates directly to the resources it
possesses. Some of these resources are personal in that they reside in the individual family members. An obvious example is the ability to earn an income. Education is a resource that contributes to one’s earning power,
enhances prestige, and instills self-confidence. Personal maturity coupled with a good education can provide helpful skills in such areas as problem- solving, goal-setting, and strategic planning. Physical and mental health is extremely valuable in times of stress; it provides the needed strength to handle the stressful situation. Characteristics such as self-esteem, a positive disposition, and clearheadedness are resources that can make a difference in a crisis.
The most important resources in coping with family stress, however, are those that reside in the family system. Effective family systems are well connected, have sufficient structure, and yet are flexible enough to adapt to stressors.
Clear and open communication is an important strength that families can draw on during times of crisis. The family that can honestly express ideas and feelings openly can work together to make the needed adjustments.
Some families possess many resources, but the shock of a crisis leaves them stifled and ineffective. They need time and hope offered by others so they can marshal their resources to move forward. The external networks the family has established are the support systems—friends, neighbors, coworkers, church and community groups—they can draw on in times of special need. The necessity of cultivating such outside resources is the reason geographical stability is so important to the family system. A family without such resources is highly vulnerable.
Family Responses to Stress Families respond to stress in two general ways: coping and problem- solving. Although the literature on coping is more directly related to the issue of family stress, we believe that the literature on problem-solving is invaluable because it conceptualizes the family’s response to stress as taking place in stages.
Coping Coping refers to what the family and its individual members do with their
resources in the face of stress. Sociologist Reuben Hill (1949) developed a model indicating that stress is the result of the interaction among the event, the family’s resources, and their perception of the event. Since the degree of
success in coping with stress varies significantly from family to family, the following strategy has been proposed.
The first step is to marshal all available resources. Coping strategies may consist of direct action aimed at changing the stressful conditions, a rethinking of the whole situation (including how the stress might be turned into a benefit), or a combination of both of these processes. Take the case of an elderly grandmother who is no longer able to live independently. First, the family considers all the family and community resources available to help with this crisis: retirement homes, elder-care facilities, moving in with a relative, health program options, and so on. While they must consider the initial stress and the adjustment to be made by everyone involved, they also take into account the family strengths and the resources that family members have to offer. It can be a wonderful opportunity for members to extend themselves in new ways. They also see Grandmother as a resource for the family and recognize all the ways each member will benefit from her presence.
If family members are depleted because of other mitigating circumstances, they are not in a position to be a resource in this crisis. For instance, if the husband is frustrated in his job, the teenage daughter is acting out, and the family dynamics are disruptive, they are in no position to take on Grandmother. This would be a poor environment for the grandmother and would likely cause inordinate strain to the family system.
Problem-Solving Irving Tallman and Louis Gray (1987) present five stages involved in
family problem-solving. 1. The family becomes aware of and defines a situation as a problem. The
greater the threat to the family’s welfare, the more the situation will be perceived as a problem. Families that consider themselves effective problem solvers are quick to perceive threatening situations and deal with them, whereas those that lack confidence in their ability to deal with problems are more likely to deny the seriousness of the situation.
2. The greater the family’s confidence that they can solve the problem, the greater will be their motivation to act. In general, families are less likely to recognize and act on problems when stress is either very low or very high. Under very high stress, families tend to engage in defensive avoidance instead of constructive problem-solving. Selective inattention, forgetfulness,
missing warning signs, and wishful rationalizations minimize the severity of the problem. Very often, this is the time when the family requires assistance from professional external resources.
3. The family searches for and processes information relevant to effectively solving the problem. On the basis of the information gathered, the family decides which among the many options would be the most effective way to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, they may select the solution that entails the least inconvenience—that is, the least time, money, energy, and resources. Thus, the family may not search for the best possible solution but rather for a satisfactory one. Taking the time to find the very best option leads to the best outcome.
4. When the selected solution has been tried, the family evaluates its effectiveness. They may decide that the chosen strategy should be continued, revised, or discarded in favor of an alternative strategy. It requires patience and determination to give solutions enough time to work. It is helpful to remember that stress is usually heightened, rather than reduced, during the problem-solving process. However, making needed adjustments to ensure a good solution is also a wise strategy.
5. At this point, the family knows either that the problem has been solved or that the family needs to go back to the drawing board and try another solution. Flexibility ensures that families make needed adjustments or discard what isn’t working and try something new. They stay with it until a satisfactory solution is working.
Coping with Catastrophes and Ambiguous Loss A catastrophe is a stressful event that is sudden, unexpected, and life threatening. The circumstances are beyond the family’s control and leave them in an extreme state of helplessness. Because catastrophes occur infrequently, most families are not prepared to cope with them. Wars, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, or pandemics can wipe out whole segments of a population without warning. Survivors are devastated by the sudden losses.
Catastrophes differ from other stressful events in a number of ways (Figley and McCubbin 1983): (1) a family has little or no time to prepare for a catastrophe; (2) the family has no previous experience to help it deal with the situation; (3) there are few resources to draw on to help manage the resulting
stress; (4) few other families have experienced a similar disaster and can provide suitable support; (5) the family is likely to spend a long time in a state of crisis; (6) the family experiences a loss of control and posttraumatic stress syndrome resulting from a heightened sense of danger, helplessness, disruption, destruction, and loss; and (7) a number of medical problems (physical and emotional) are likely to occur.
Ambiguous loss is a phrase coined by Pauline Boss (2000, 2010) to refer to unresolved grief that lingers in a family when there is no closure. She describes ambiguous loss as frozen sadness, what a family feels when it cannot really know what it has lost. There are two types of ambiguous loss: one involves a family member who is missing, but there is no proof of death or even knowledge of where the person may be, if still alive; the other involves a person who is present in body but whose mind is not, such as is the case with severe dementia, depression, mental illness, or addiction (Boss, Roos, and Harns 2011).
Substantial research has examined the various emotional stages that a family in crisis goes through. Best known is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s (1970) five-stage process an individual or a family typically goes through when confronted with a loss through death—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although there is agreement that these stages don’t always go in order and one must consider the unique grieving process of each family member, it is still helpful to consider these components of grief. Denial is often the initial stage, usually characterized as a state of shock in response to the unexpected loss. Family members may appear calm and collected, exhibiting emotions that are even somewhat inappropriate given the severity of what has happened. There can be immediate and acute underlying feelings of numbness. As family members get in touch with the reality of what has happened, they may experience anger. To the outside observer, the increased emotional intensity characterizing this time may appear regressive. In truth, it is an honest reaction and a healthy step along the road to emotional healing.
There can be a time of bargaining during the crisis. Unable to accept the magnitude of the loss, persons may try to minimize or think a bargaining tactic may change things (e.g., a family that has suffered financial bankruptcy may promise to give more to the church if only God will restore a portion of what has been lost). However, as family members come to realize the full extent of the particular loss, they can become more depressed about what has
happened. Often, this is the lowest emotional point. Depression is actually an expression of deep sadness and grief about what was lost. Persons can go back and forth through many different emotions (fear, guilt, anxiety, conflict, meaninglessness, feeling out of control, loneliness) in the final move toward acceptance, which is known as the angle of recovery. The angle can be depicted as a very steep incline, pointing to a speedy emotional upturn, or as a gradual slope, representing a long, drawn-out recovery period. The angle of recovery depends on the resources the family has at its disposal.