Seven Steps for Coping with Sudden Unexpected Change as a Family

Depressed young woman crying

When sudden, unexpected, personal traumatic events occur, they can place extra stress on the family as a whole as well as on individual family members. How your family responds to a stressful event like this is linked to how healthy you are as a family and how safe your children feel in your family unit. Whether the change is temporary or permanent will alter the stress level as well.

Four weeks ago, my 82 year old father broke his hip and five days later died. We live in a different state to him. This event placed stress on our family. I arrived home at 10pm after a board meeting and hubby and I decided that I needed to pack my bags and leave at 5am the next morning to catch a flight to Tasmania where my dad was in hospital.

Princess (15) was due to commence work at 7am. The return airport trip for hubby would be 3 hours. We needed to contact a friend to ask her to pick up our daughter to take her to work that next morning as it is not on a bus route. We then needed to organise what to do with Matey (12) whom we home school. He went to work with hubby.

Numerous events had to be managed over the next few days as both children are involved in various activities. Matey volunteered to cook the dinners. Princess volunteered to buy any extra supplies needed from the supermarket and keep receipts (on her initiative she asked for $50 and made up a sheet where she could record expenses and total money still available). Both kids shared household duties eg washing clothes, washing up etc.

During this time, we implemented several things that helped our family reduce stress levels and continue to thrive.

Below are seven steps that we found helpful in coping as a family with temporary unexpected change:

  1. Communicate well.

Keep every family member informed (age appropriate) as much as possible. We shared as much as we could with the kids so that they were knowledgeable about what was occurring with grand-dad and myself whilst I was interstate. We emphasised that flexibility was a key eg Princess needing to go to work an hour earlier the following day as hubby needed to get his workers started and then he could drop her off at work at her correct starting time etc.

  1. Be clear with expectations.

We needed to clearly tell the kids what we needed from them and what needed doing. Once they are aware of this, they then are more prepared to also ‘give up’ their wants as they realise that those ‘wants’ don’t fit into the big picture right at this moment.

  1. Give every family member a job / task to take care.

The kids decided amongst themselves who would do what around the home for it to function accordingly eg Matey cook dinner, Princess washing and ironing.

  1. Understand that people react differently to stress.

Matey in particular needed reassurance every day of chatting with me. Whenever he rang me, he would always ask, “Mum, how are you feeling?”. Princess, on the other hand, was task orientated and would tell me everything that everyone had done, much like hubby.

  1. Express love regularly to all family members.

Help every family member feel loved and valued and appreciated in the way they need. Stop and give the kids an extra hug. Regularly tell all family members that they are loved. Look for the little things and encourage each other in what they have do and how they are doing.

  1. Review regularly.

Ask every family member how they are going. Keep an eye on any outbursts or any family members reacting differently to something than what they normally do as that may indicate the stress is impacting them more. Check that everything, task wise, that needs doing is getting achieved to a satisfactory level.

  1. Celebrate the family’s effort afterwards.

Encourage each family member afterwards on their ability to pull together and operate as a team. Have a special dinner etc to thank everyone and celebrate.

Children tend to look towards their parents, particularly the same sex parent, to see how they are coping and get their cues from them. Grief, in particular, is quite unique and people grieve differently. Children need to see how their parents grieve in a healthy manner. They need to see that crying is normal.

What have you found works well for your family during sudden unexpected traumatic times?

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