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    By Jennie Bedsworth, MSW, Kaplan University Adjunct Faculty 

    Family trauma can come in a variety of forms. A natural disaster, loss of a loved one to war, and domestic violence are just a few examples—and the effects of each are different. At first, it can seem like a return to normal life is not possible after a disaster. But soon enough, families can fall into negative patterns, like avoiding emotional stress caused by the event, or pretending it never happened. This can be particularly easy today, with distractions of school, work, sports, and cell phones.

    While this can provide welcome relief in the short-term, over time it can add up and become overwhelming. This can lead to dysfunctional communication patterns in the family, strained relationships, and complications of mental health concerns like anxiety disorders and depression, common following traumatic events. However, there are ways that mental health workers and families themselves can overcome and heal from traumatic events, returning to a healthy and meaningful life—in some cases even better than the one before.

    Here is a look at opportunities and interventions we might not always think of when it comes to helping families heal after trauma.

    Family Play

    Children can still be left behind in traditional forms of therapy, which typically include individual and family counseling. Therapists may be uncomfortable working with young children, particularly those young enough that they cannot interact verbally in the same ways as adults. However, opportunities are missed when children are overlooked. Carl Whitaker, a pioneer in family therapy, found that children are actually more open and available than their parents.1 That means children may benefit more than adults do from family therapy—if it’s kid-friendly.

    A combination of family and play therapy techniques can involve everyone. These techniques are less intense and intimidating than traditional family therapy sessions, but are still beneficial. Examples of creative techniques include use of art, role-playing, sculpture, music, and storytelling.2 

    Even outside of the formal therapy setting, families can play together to improve bonding, decrease defenses, and strengthen relationships.

    Family play can also take place outside of therapy sessions—even a regular game night, or just an occasional game of cards, can create a less intimidating environment for families to communicate in a meaningful way. Memories of a lost loved one can be expressed during a game, and victims of domestic violence can learn to let down defenses after an abuser has been removed from the family unit. Or, family members can simply get to know one another better, encouraging openness and communication. 

    Therapeutic Self-Defense

    In some cases, play, therapy, and family bonding just aren’t enough. If a family’s everyday safety has been violated, perhaps through an in-home burglary, it can create anxiety and fears that last for years. The same can be said following physical trauma like sexual abuse or violence by a member of the family, even if the abuser is no longer around. While talk therapy can help families express emotions and fears, and can help with every day functioning, it doesn’t necessarily alleviate anxieties in the long run—or the terror over what do to if the violation happens again.

    Recent evidence suggests that some self-defense programs can not only empower victims, but can help them actively work through fears and aggressions that may take traditional therapies years to fully address.3 

    Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk followed the effects of one self-defense program in particular, called Model Mugging. This program focuses not as much on specific defense moves (although those are included), but on overcoming the freeze response common among victims. His observations showed that women who had been victims of assault previous to the class were able to re-experience the threat in a safe way, and work through the trauma to a positive end result, which wasn’t possible in the real-life attacks.4 

    While Model Mugging (now called Impact in some areas), has primarily focused on adult women, some areas around the U.S. also offer classes for men, teens, and children. Instructors are trained in addressing and dealing with overwhelming emotions, which often come up during the course, as well as the simple but memorable physical techniques.

    A short video, listed under resources below, provides an overview of what the program includes for one area (verbal and physical violence is portrayed).

    Meditative Therapies

    Along with activities that involve movement, alternative therapies focused on stillness can help decrease everyday stress that may result from trauma. These therapies can also help to calm and focus thinking patterns that may contribute to anxiety and acting out behaviors.

    Forms of meditation have been used for years in traditional office-based therapy, but helping professionals are now trying the practice in broader areas.

    Some schools use meditation as a way to help teens balance family and personal issues, along with the stress of high school. This may help them learn to manage emotions at school and at home.And in a program designed to treat adolescent sex offenders, researchers looked at using yoga and meditation. The results were promising. One teen client reported, “I can replace unwanted thoughts more easily now. I try not to control my feelings, just feel them, otherwise they can get stuffed and come out some other way, as abuse.”6 

    Research showing the benefits of ongoing mediation for adults and for children indicates promise for victim families who meditate together or participate in other mindful practices, such as yoga or Tai Chi.

    Adjusting to Family Needs

    What is clear is that there is no “one way fits all” approach to healing after trauma. Just like each individual, each family has its own needs and own personality. The most appropriate interventions will depend on the type of trauma, the health and habits of the family before the event, and the individual personalities of the family members. The best approach likely includes a variety of strategies, perhaps traditional counseling combined with alternative options such as those outlined here.

    By finding the appropriate treatment mix for each family, helping professionals can provide immediate relief, while decreasing the risk of ongoing problems caused by the traumatic event.

    Resources:

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    References:
    1. C. Zilversmit, “Family Treatment with Families with Young Children,” Families in Society, 71, no. 4 (1990).
    2. S. Deacon, and F. Piercy, “Qualitative Methods in Family Evaluation: Creative Assessment Techniques,” American Journal of Family Therapy, 29, no 5 (2001).
    3. B. van der Kolk, “Frontiers in Trauma Treatment,” R. Cassidy Seminars, St. Louis, MO, 19 March 2004.
    4. Ibid.
    5. Wisner, et al., “School-based Meditation Practices for Adolescents: A Resource for Strengthening Self-Regulation, Emotional Coping, and Self-Esteem,” Children & Schools, 32, no. 3 (2010).
    6. D. Derezotes, “Evaluation of Yoga and Meditation Trainings with Adolescent Sex Offenders,” Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 17, no. 2 (2000).
    ________________________________________


    Jennie Bedsworth, MSW 

    Jennie Bedsworth is an adjunct instructor for Kaplan University, and has taught undergraduate courses in communications, human services, and cultural diversity for the past 5 years. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Missouri, and has worked for local and state human services agencies in the areas of mental health, domestic violence, ADHD, family advocacy, and child abuse.

    Ms. Bedsworth also has a degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Missouri, and has written for state and national magazines and websites on topics including mental health, rural life, agriculture and healthcare. She writes a blog for Womenetics.com called Women, Mind & Soul.

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