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Family Crises Connected to Birth, Aging, Illness & Death

Instructor: Kristen Leverentz

Dr. Leverentz has taught in higher education since 2003 and has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, a M.A. in Clinical Psychology, and a B.A. in Psychology and Women's Studies.

This lesson explores the different types of family crises that arise from events such as birth, illness, aging, and death. We will discuss the different ways that these life changing events can impact families.

How Families Function

Each family has its own unique way of functioning. Sometimes life events occur that disrupt the functioning of an individual in the family or the family system as a whole. The family system simply refers to the interaction between each member of a family and the specific roles each family member plays within the family. Many of us have experienced many serious changes, and each can have a negative impact on the family.

Life-Changing Events

There are many events that can precipitate a crisis in a family. It is inevitable that families will experience at least one of the following.

  • The birth of a new child, while often an exciting and welcome event, can also cause extreme fatigue, anxiety, fear, and disruption, regardless of how the baby enters the family, whether biologically or through adoption.
  • A diagnosis of a chronic or severe illness can cause increased stress, anxiety, and fear for every family member and physical changes in ability for the ill family member.
  • All families deal with aging and the changes that affect us physically, emotionally, and cognitively. These changes are often considered typical results of aging; there are also chronic diseases that are aging-related.
  • The death of a loved one can be extremely disruptive, causing family members to grieve the loss of the family member and have to move into new roles in the family.

Negative Impacts on the Family

Role Change

One impact of these events on a family is the changes in roles that individuals experience. Each individual family has their own unique social roles that members hold within the family system. These roles are related to the parts each person plays based on how the environment influences them. Life events can cause changes in the practical roles that each family member takes. These roles may be physical, such as who pays the bills; cognitive, such as who remembers to schedule dentist appointments; or emotional, such as who other family member's lean on in a crisis. When these practical roles are disrupted, it may leave the other family members off-balance and unsure as to who will step into that role.

Health Impact

Life-altering events can also have impacts on the health of family members. Stress has been shown to negatively impact health, increasing people's susceptibility to illness and injury, and each of these life-events brings a great deal of stress. Caregiving has also been shown to increase the risk of physical illness, in part because caregivers often fail to take care of themselves through good nutrition, adequate sleep, and exercise.

Professionals may use a rating scale called the Social-Readjustment Rating Scale that counts the number of life events experienced in the past year and gives them each a numerical rating. Each numerical rating is then added together for a life stress score. The higher the score, the more likely it is that the person will experience physical illness from the impact of the stressor.

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