The Role of the Family in Trauma Therapy

family therapy

Over the course of the past 35 years, significant advances pertaining to our understanding of the brain and the neurobiology of trauma have lead to a host of effective and progressive therapeutic treatment methods. Important innovations such as Somatic Experiencing, dialectical behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and Internal Family Systems have allowed the therapeutic community to make great strides in the realm of trauma recovery. Because of these wide-ranging therapeutic advances, individuals who were once hopeless and severely emotionally wounded are learning new ways in which to think, self-regulate, and cope. The stigma surrounding trauma-related symptoms is slowly being smashed, and men and women who were once entirely overwhelmed by the lasting effects of traumatic experiences are finding a new sense of restored and lasting well-being.

Great Strides Made in the Realm of Trauma Recovery

At least, this is the case while they are in inpatient treatment, or sitting safely in a one-on-one session. But eventually they return home, and are immediately submersed back into their day-to-day lives; the stresses of work, the almost innate dysfunction of family life, and the well-worn patters of negative emotion. Regardless of how much progress is made in therapy, it is all too easy to fall rapidly back into old thoughts and feelings as soon as the setting changes. The majority of clinicians believe that the immense benefits that trauma therapy provides should instinctively transfer into all areas of a patient’s life. However, when therapy is being attended once a week for a 60-minute period of time, the intensive work being done is almost always (at least partially) wiped out by the time the next session rolls around. Why is this so?

Effective Trauma Therapy

An individual sits safely inside a consulting room, and experiences positive and healthy interactions with his trusted therapist. After having all of his emotional needs and wants met for a solid hour – after feeling important, as if his issues and concerns are finally being given the attention they deserve – he is thrown right back into an environment in which he is lost amidst the shuffle. His personal wants and needs are no longer being met, because they directly conflict with the wants and needs of those he lives with. The patient begins to believe that no one at home quite understands him; maybe he feels that no one even cares for him, or loves him enough to offer him the unconditional support that his therapist offers unquestioningly. Meanwhile, family members formulate their own thoughts and opinions regarding therapy, projecting their insecurities onto the family member who has been actively seeking outside help.

For example, his wife may begin to wonder, “Is he spending the entire session talking about me and how miserable I make him?” She may begin to subconsciously develop a resentment based solely on misperception. To some members of the family, the therapeutic help may be perceived as a kind of infidelity or betrayal – a threat to the emotional and behavioral patterns of the family as a whole. Without meaning to, or even recognizing that they are doing so, they may begin to feel insecure and anxious at the idea of a family member sharing close, personal business with someone outside of the immediate family. It is common for a family to inadvertently mistake regular engagement in therapy with ultimate rejection. “Why can’t you just talk to us? What can this stranger provide to you that your loving family cannot?”

Thus, the real issue is this: No matter how much personal progress an individual makes in recovering from trauma in a therapeutic setting, the progress will not translate to other areas of life unless the family is actively involved in the recovery process.

Trauma and Connectedness

Individuals who have undergone traumatic experiences often feel disconnected from other human beings. They frequently have a difficult time trusting, relating to, and being emotionally vulnerable with others. This includes members of their own families. Implementing the standard one-on-one therapeutic approach is undeniably beneficial, but it often exacerbates long-standing feelings of being an outsider – the sick one, the black sheep, the one family member that needs supplemental attention. For this reason, family therapy has proven extremely beneficial in the comprehensive and effective treatment of trauma. There are many clinical advantages when it comes to taking a more systematic approach to trauma recovery. When the family members become involved in the therapeutic process, it is easier for the therapists to determine what relational patterns are triggering traumatic symptoms – which patterns of familial functioning are helping along the healing process, and which areas need improvement. Creating healing partnerships and healthy, supportive bonds amongst family members cannot be accomplished in individual therapy – and it certainly cannot be accomplished at home without some intensive guidance, and outside acknowledgment of destructive and damaging cycles.

We at Next Chapter strongly believe in the benefits of family therapy when it comes to trauma recovery, and we have structured our program of recovery around immersive family involvement. Not only do we offer individual therapeutic support to immediate family members, we host an intensive and therapeutically driven ‘family week’ on a regular basis, inviting the family members of our patients to attend sessions at our facility in Delray Beach, FL. If you or someone you love is in need of treatment for unresolved trauma or substance dependency, please feel free to contact us today for more information on our male-specific program of addiction and trauma recovery. We look forward to speaking with you soon!