Traumatic Stress and Families

June 12, 2018
Health and Mental Care

By Juliana Gerena, Psy.D and Raven Oshiro, M.S


Reactions to traumatic experiences can lead to severe emotional pain for the victim as well as their families. This exposure is often referred to as Vicarious Trauma (VT), which is a term used to define the changes experienced by individuals that result from hearing stories of victimization, and viewing another person’s emotional pain (1). VT can be used to explain a family’s second-hand exposure as well as the stress, exhaustion, and hypervigilance they experience. There has been significant progress to assist in identifying traumatic exposure and its impact on families. These experiences can lead to changes for the victim and their family; changes include but are not limited to one’s identity, worldview, and spirituality. There are countless forms of violence in the world that can impact any individual and their family. Therefore, becoming aware of the various types of trauma can improve a person’s ability to identify and practice safety to prevent future traumatic events.

What Contributes to the Development of Vicarious Trauma?

When individuals become victims of traumatic events family members make attempts to help the person in need; however, while making these attempts they are faced with repeated descriptions of the trauma. Proving emotional support for the person in need can lead to increased stress for the family, thus resulting in secondary trauma symptoms for the helping family member. These symptoms can surface due to the empathic engagement with the victim of the trauma, or due to family member’s personal history of trauma. Secondary traumatic symptoms include anxiety, depression, sadness, avoidance, and increased vulnerability. These symptoms vary and are dependent on age, gender, family history of trauma, social support, cultural support, and current life stressors (2). Increasing awareness of potential risk factors for families can assist in identifying secondary trauma symptoms and aid in recovery.

Research has indicated more than half of children are exposed to at least one traumatic experience (3). These experiences can range from abuse, neglect, family/community violence, and parental separation (3). Children who experience trauma may exhibit problems adapting to school, have troubled relationships with family and peers, and have difficulties managing their emotions (3). According to the American Psychological Association (APA) violence rates have increased among children and adolescents; prevalence rates for witnessing community violence has increased from 39 to 85 percent, victimization rates have increased to 66 percent, and rates of youth exposure to sexual abuse has increased from 24 to 43 percent. In addition to these adverse experiences, other traumatic events such as unintentional injury can impact many children and adolescents. APA reported 7.9 million children received medical care for motor vehicle accidents, falls, and near drowning experiences.  Regardless of the type of trauma experienced by children, these events can impact the family.

What Does This Mean for Families Who Endure These Experiences?

Spreading awareness and being knowledgeable of potential risk factors for trauma can assist parents to identify if they are experiencing VT. These traumatic experiences are harmful to the development of the youth as well as the emotional, physical, and psychological distress for the family. When making attempts to relieve the emotional pain of the victim family member, it can result in stress and feeling of helplessness. Being aware of the impact trauma has on families and incorporating safety, stability, and a nurturing environment can help families become more resilient. For example, families can help by providing a sense of safety for their children by reestablishing routines, such as returning to school, participating in community events, and reinstating nightly family dinners. Although achieving all of this may not be easy, participating in these activities help families begin to feel normalized, and continue their lives as they did prior to the event. These activities can help to encourage families to practice community safety to prevent future traumatic events from occurring. If assistance is needed, families can seek support from local agencies, schools, and other family members in their community. As a community, it is important we become aware of the impact trauma has on our children and their families.


Juliana Gerena, Psy.D founded Gerena and Associates in Coral Springs, FL. A private practice aimed to provide mental health services for children, adults, couples, and families. Gerena earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from Albizu University and has over 20 years of experience working with the forensic population, specifically with children and their families. Raven Oshiro, M.S is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Albizu University. She is currently completing her graduate training at Gerena and Associates serving children and their families. For more information please visit:


  1. Adams, S. A., & Riggs, S. A. (2008). An exploratory study of vicarious trauma among therapist trainees. Training and Education in Professional Psychology2(1), 26.
  2. Straussner, S. L. A., & Calnan, A. J. (2014). Trauma through the life cycle: a review of current literature. Clinical Social Work Journal42(4), 323-335.
  3. Perez, N. M., Jennings, W. G., Piquero, A. R., & Baglivio, M. T. (2016). Adverse childhood experiences and suicide attempts: the mediating influence of personality development and problem behaviors. Journal of youth and adolescence45(8), 1527-1545.


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