Chapter 5: Coping With Family Crises

Crisis and Growth: Helping Your Troubled Child
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 5: Coping With Family Crises

A crisis happens within a person (or family) rather than simply to him. Difficult circumstances such as prolonged illness, the birth of a handicapped child, a divorce, an accident, or a death are a part of nearly everyone's experience. Our response to the emergency or the difficulty determines whether or not the crisis will be a growth experience. There are several principles which we have found can be helpful in handling crises constructively:

1) Your response to a crisis-inducing situation is within your control. How an individual responds to difficult circumstances depends on many things within him -- his philosophy of life; his relationships; coping abilities he has developed previously; other stresses and satisfactions; religious and emotional resources. A young mother commented, "Realizing that we could choose how we reacted to the blow of having to pull up our roots and move gave us a feeling of strength along with our pain."

2) Face and express the big feelings that accompany every crisis. Feelings of loss, anger, guilt, resentment, confusion, helplessness, despair and even temporary disorientation, panic, and paralysis are often a part of the first response to a crisis-inducing situation. These feelings must be dealt with so that your coping abilities can be used creatively. Weeping, talking out painful feelings with an empathetic person -- spouse, friend, clergyman, counselor -- are ways of working through the painful feelings. Children should be encouraged to talk out and play out their fear and hurt. Four-year-old Joel played "wreck" for several months after a family automobile accident, crashing his toy cars into each other violently as he relived and resolved painful memories. Burdensome feelings openly dealt with gradually diminish, freeing you to use your mind more efficiently in handling the external difficulties. Stored up, they only cripple your ability to act constructively.

3) Accept the fact that crises and living go together. Of course there are bound to be feelings of hurt and anger when life treats you harshly. But if you can avoid getting stuck in resentment and guilt (Why did this happen to me? or, I must have done something bad to deserve this), you will be able to take appropriate action sooner. Self-pity is an expensive luxury. The person (or family) who gets mired down in it doesn't have incentive or energy left for dealing with the crisis.

4) Decide on some positive action, however small. The personality is like a muscle -- using it to improve your situation makes it stronger and healthier. Exercising your coping abilities by standing off (perhaps with a counselor's help) and getting an overview of the situation, then deciding on one option, and moving into action, usually makes you feel less helpless. Taking action does not necessarily mean you can change the external situation. Losing a loved one through death is something that cannot be changed. But you can do something that will strengthen you to cope with the tremendous loss.

5) Turn toward people. Don't be afraid to lean on them. Many people experiencing a crisis are tempted to isolate themselves from others, because of loneliness, or the mistaken notion that stoic self-sufficiency is a virtue, or because they fear they will be a burden to others. But people need people and people need to be needed. A crisis occurs within us when important foods of the spirit, such as acceptance, belonging, caring, devotion, esteem, faith, are threatened or cut off. The loss of a loving relationship, an esteem-feeding job, financial security, dreams for one's children, a house that feels like home, a healthy body, the life stage one has gotten used to, means there probably will be a crisis within. Withdrawing from people only intensifies the loss. (It also deprives others of the chance to be needed.) Temporary sources of nourishment in helpful relationships give one strength to handle losses. Replacing lost emotional nurturance by developing new relationships is essential for long-range recovery. In the acute stages of crisis, a few sessions with a skilled counselor can be extremely helpful in recovering from the staggering blow and mobilizing your own resources.

6) Remember that coping successfully with a crisis actually makes you stronger. A crisis is like a fork in the road, one moves in the right direction or the wrong -- toward either weakening or strengthening his coping abilities. Each crisis, if it is handled constructively, leaves you better equipped for the next one. A family which lives through and handles painful problems together without collapsing is bound together in new strength and closeness. After his nine-year-old son's serious accident, one father said, "Terry's hospitalization forced us to pull together as a family. We found out we have guts when it counts." An unexpected fringe benefit of crisis is that a person or family discovers unused inner resources.

7) Let yourself lean on the Eternal -- on God. Don't be afraid to ask the big questions which the crisis within you stirs. A crisis forces us to draw on all our spiritual resources. What does it all mean? How does it fit into our family's philosophy of living? Are our values workable when the going gets tough? What value changes do we need to make in response to the new awareness of how brief, fragile and precious our life together is?

A doctor in California asks his nearly recovered heart patients, "What have you learned from this experience?" This is an appropriate question once one is beginning to get on top of things again. Not to ask it is to waste the opportunity for spiritual growth. The wife of a recovering alcoholic said, "We didn't expect to get reconnected with a higher Power and to rejoin the human race as a result of Ben's alcoholism, but that's just what happened to us in AA and Al-Anon." If your religious beliefs and experiences let you know the reality of "leaning on the everlasting arms," you have an invaluable strength for crisis. This spiritual strength can be increased through the soul-searching opportunities of a crisis. Talking over the deep questions of faith and values with a theologically trained counselor (your minister, priest, or rabbi) can help to stimulate this growth in the vertical dimension of your family and personal life.

Holding these principles of constructive coping in mind, let's look at several specific problems faced by tens of thousands of parents. 

The Handicapped Child

If your child is physically handicapped or mentally retarded your situation is continually demanding, discouraging, and frustrating. Someone has described parents of a permanently handicapped child as living with chronic grief, a dark cloud always hanging somewhere in their consciousness. Here are some guidelines which may be helpful:

First, it is crucial to deal candidly with your feelings; discuss them often with your spouse. If yours is a one-parent family, find a caring adult with whom to talk through your pain. Parents of handicapped children experience a whirl of feelings -- resentment, confusion, disappointment, shame, grief, and guilt, combined with tenderness, protectiveness, and intense caring. Feelings that aren't "owned" or recognized interfere with a parent's relationship with his handicapped child. Hidden resentment toward one's spouse, in handicaps which may have some basis in heredity, inhibits marital intimacy. If you can't talk out your painful feelings thoroughly with each other, get professional assistance.

Second, find the best diagnostic treatment and rehabilitation services available to you. The vast majority of handicapped persons can achieve a satisfying and relatively self-sufficient life. The therapy may be long, but the alternative is a life of dependent futility. Get your doctor's and clergyman's advice about local helping agencies and financial assistance. With this information in hand, take action! Long delays may make rehabilitation more difficult.

Third, do everything you can to avoid treating your child as special. Overprotecting and pampering him seem kind now, but they will prove to be "cruel kindness," denying him the learning-through struggle that produces that degree of mastery of which he is capable. Of course it is important to recognize his actual limitations and avoid unrealistic expectations which only frustrate him and you. But normal parental reflexes make you want to "help" your handicapped child more than is really helpful. The guideline is: don't do anything for him that he may be able to learn to do for himself if he has to.

Fourth, learn to accept your child the way he is. This is hard advice, for it is difficult to distinguish realistic from unrealistic expectations. All parents have dreams and aspirations for their children. Parents of a handicapped child are forced to revise or relinquish these. It is harder for everyone if the parents continue to hope for the miracle rather than accepting the child's worth as he is.

Fifth, encourage your child to talk out and play out his own feelings. His self-image will be colored by his unresolved conflicts and fantasies about his body, as well as his perception of how you really feel about him. If you have other children, they should also have opportunities to talk or play through their feelings -- jealousy about special treatment of him, nonrational guilt about being unhandicapped, a sense of family stigma. A child or family therapist may be necessary to help you all get at half-buried feelings.

Finally, relinquish inappropriate self-blame and the theological distortions which cause some parents to feel (even though they don't really believe it) that God or life is punishing them for some known or unknown sin. Such punitive, unflattering pictures of God certainly don't fit the best understandings of him in our religious heritage. A clinically trained clergyman is often the best-equipped person to help you deal with such theological distortions, and achieve the positive spiritual perspective needed to carry a heavy load. 

Prolonged Illnesses

Long illness, particularly if it involves hospitalization, can leave unhealed emotional wounds. Separation from security-giving relationships, strange, threatening surroundings, and the anxiety, boredom and pain, often make hospitalizations traumatic to children. Parents of young children should insist on being with them. After an upsetting experience at a hospital or doctor's office, create an opportunity for your child or youth to talk about his feelings and fantasies (often of death or the loss of a part of his body). Homegrown or professional play therapy can be invaluable; let young children play out their anger and fear, for example by sticking a needle in a doll representing the doctor or the nurse. As in other problems, the rule is the same -- don't let the painful feelings lie buried and festering.

The other troublesome result of prolonged illness is missing important learning experiences. Jill was hospitalized with rheumatic fever during what should have been her freshman year in high school. A home teacher supplied by the school helped her keep up academically. What she missed was a year of learning new social skills -- things like how to talk with boys -- which her peers were busily practicing. Having fallen behind, it was difficult to catch up; since she was both shy and socially inept, she continued to fail in social situations. Some coaching and encouragement in a small support group (a teen self-discovery group with a trained adult leader in her church) were necessary to help Jill get back in stride with her age group. 

Drug Problems

Many teen-agers and pre-teens are involved in the "drug scene." This is particularly frightening to parents for whom it conjures up visions of drug addiction, delinquency, and sexual problems. Like all human problems, this one is complex. Youth use drugs for many different reasons and in ways that involve danger from little to very great. Unfortunately, parental panic reactions tend to lump all drug use together. Some youth (and adults) use drugs to deaden terrible psychological pain or to opt out of grim external reality -- ghettoes, war, pollution, overpopulation. For these, drug use is more a case of turning off than turning on. But thousands of youth dabble in drug use, particularly "pot," to share in a peer-group ritual, for a "peak experience," or simply to try something exciting of which the square adult world vigorously disapproves. The vast majority of this group will probably experience no lasting harmful effects, although there's always risk -- a fact which makes drug use more rather than less attractive to most youth. Only a small percentage of marijuana users, according to recent research, move on to heroin addiction.

Here are some suggestions which may help if you know or suspect that your teen-ager is using drugs. (The same approach applies if he is involved in sexual activities of which you disapprove.)

First, don't panic! If you're "up tight" about drugs, talk to a counselor who can help you get the problem in perspective before you try to discuss it with your son or daughter. Otherwise, you may wreck communication between you just when it is most needed. A counselor who understands the youth counterculture can help you decide what course of action or inaction will probably contribute to your teen-ager's real safety and growth toward adulthood, and not simply shatter what may already be a shaky relationship between you.

Second, don't exaggerate or use heavy-handed methods. If your parents used such methods with you as an adolescent, you can probably still remember your fury, hurt and resentment. Heavy-handed methods of discipline simply don't work, and they usually backfire, especially with teen-agers. Teens are expert at making tyrants feel guilty. Harsh external discipline delays rather than fosters the emergence of what the adolescent must develop to be a responsible adult -- self-discipline. Most important, heavy-handedness tends to weaken or destroy the most precious thing of all -- your relationship. Your son or daughter needs that, even if he doesn't show it; so do you! Parental overreacting to superficial experimentation with drugs may make it continue as a way of rebelliously establishing one's separate identity.

Third, continue to set limits but only on things that are really important and are enforceable. Don't waste your parental influence on things like length of hair, which is a powerful symbol of peer group identity and the strength of youth to defy the establishment. If you spend your influence trying to get your youth to conform to adult standards for hair and clothes, you probably won't have any left for things like respect, integrity and love.

Fourth, keep working at strengthening the lines of communication. If they're broken and you can't repair them, get the help of a family counselor, who is trained as a communications facilitator. There are periods during the teens when a youth cuts communication from his end, much of the time. He needs to live in his world to do his own private growing and discovering of himself. When this happens, stay available but don't try to force your way into his world. Incidentally, the ability of your child or youth to communicate negative feelings toward you and articulate vigorous disagreements, probably is a sign that you have succeeded in giving him enough room to become himself.

Fifth, set a positive example of the responsible use or non-use of drugs (alcohol, nicotine, sleeping pills). Example is still the most powerful teacher. "Thou shalt nots" are singularly unconvincing to youth, particularly if parents are also misusing their own favorite consciousness-altering drugs. The real issue in the use/misuse of a given drug is, "How much and under what circumstances does its use enhance or diminish the life of the user and his relationships?" Responsible use means using any drug only in those situations and amounts which keep the danger of hurting persons at an absolute minimum. Responsible non-use of any drug means abstaining in ways that neither "drives others to drink," nor rejects judgmentally the possible benefits of their use by others. In our drug-saturated culture, learning what responsible behavior and attitudes are, relative to drugs, is a vital part of the preparation of children and youth for constructive adulthood.

Sixth, make therapy available for your teen-ager, if you know that he is in real trouble with drugs or that his use of them is symptomatic of deep unhappiness. Many cities now have free clinics where youth can get medical and counseling help, on a walk-in basis, without parental consent and even without giving their names. Your city should have such an easily available service tailored especially to rebelling, alienated youth. Telephone crisis clinics (sometimes called "hot line" services) with a special emphasis on helping drug users, are also valuable community resources. Some churches are taking the initiative and cooperating in such projects.

Above all, develop a life style that includes genuine excitement about living, the only long-range, positive alternative to drug use. As one high school girl put it, after she had found this life style in a growth group led by her minister, "I'm really turned on to nature, books, music, and most all, people! It's beautiful!" In a word, if the job of the family and of the church is to help persons of all ages find "life in all its fullness," these institutions are key instruments for preventing drug abuse. 

One-Parent Families

The millions of parents who must be both mother and father have a demanding, but not impossible, assignment. Here are some ways of handling the pressures constructively.

First, build a support group -- a set of relationships with other adults and families to meet your needs for adult companionship and your child's need for relationships with adults of both sexes. Two likely places to meet compatible friends are in neighborhood churches and groups like Parents Without Partners. There's a lot of giving involved in being a parent, and even more in being a double-parent. A child gives much in return, but it's not the same as what one gets and needs from nurturing adults. If we try to get adult-type satisfactions from our children, they may feel resentful or deprived of their childhood. A close relationship with at least one caring adult is essential to your own emotional vitality and parental adequacy.

A child needs closeness to adults of both sexes as he forms his own sense of identity. If you're a single parent because of divorce, give your children ample opportunity to continue or increase their relationship with your ex-spouse. However you feel about him he is still immensely important psychologically to the child you co-created. It is important that children feel they can love both parents, without losing the love of either one. Children should never be pawns which each divorced parent uses against the other. If death caused your singleness, it may be more difficult to provide ample relationships for your child with one or more caring people of the opposite sex. Arranging for such relating is one of the important things you can do to help your child cope with the loss of a parent.

It is most important what you do with your feelings about your singleness -- resentment, regret, wounded self-esteem, grief, loneliness, sexual frustration or guilt, and rejection. In a society that makes two-parent families the norm, one-parent families often feel inferior or even abnormal, which only compounds the reality problems of maintaining a growth-fostering family climate. If you find yourself stewing regularly in your feelings, obtain counseling to help you resolve the inner conflicts that are reducing your enjoyment of life and your children. Remember the crucial thing for children in one or two-parent families is the quality of the parent-child relationship. That's what will make the difference in their lives; the quality of your relations with them is something you can improve.

Life is a series of crises, large and small, expected and unexpected. If we can help our children to "see that this thing which has happened to us, even though it may be a life-shaking experience, does not of necessity have to be a life-breaking one," 1. they will be better able to handle crisis constructively. 

Transmitting a Religious Orientation to Children

Many parents ask themselves, "How can we help our children to develop a religious orientation?" Often such parents are aware of the fact that external and conventional ways of doing this -- attending church school and saying grace at meals, for example-are not in themselves adequate, unless something else is also present. This essential "something else" is a certain quality of relationships in the family, within which the heart of constructive religion actually can be experienced. If this quality of relationships is experienced, to some degree, part of the time, then a deep-level religious attitude toward persons and life will be caught by the children and reaffirmed in the adults. Having caught something of this heart-level experience and made it their own, children can then find meaning in the religious ideas and beliefs which they are taught on a head level. The possession of heart-level religious attitudes is a precious resource for meeting the misery and grandeur of life and for continuing to grow as a person, at each age and stage. A person who has reconciled and integrated his heart-level and head-level religion is best prepared to cope creatively with his painful and joyous experiences.

The quality of relationships in which religion becomes an experienced reality -- allowing the family to "live its religion" -- is the kind of accepting, nonjudgmental, caring, responsive and responsible relationships which are the theme of this volume. Let's look at the basic ingredients of a "religious orientation." These include: the feeling of deep trust and at-homeness inside oneself, with others, and in the universe; a fundamental respect for self, others, and nature; the ability and the inclination to give and receive love; a lively awareness of the wonder of the commonplace -- awe in the presence of a new baby, a sunset, a friendship; a philosophy of life that makes sense and guides decisions toward responsible behavior; a dedication with enthusiasm to the larger good of persons and society.

What helps a child to incorporate these ingredients as a part of himself? The ability to trust (which is the heart of faith) grows in the warm, dependable, nurturing relationship of the infant with the mothering and fathering persons. The ability to accept, respect, and love others is a learned ability; it develops only in a relationship in which the child receives acceptance, respect, and love for what he is -- a person of worth. This is the experience of grace-receiving the love one doesn't have to earn. This experience and the sure knowledge that one is loved and cared for, whatever happens, is the foundation for personal growth. It is the context which makes discipline -- learning to know and cooperate with the rules of good relationships -- effective in producing a responsible person. A maturing philosophy of life and workable values to guide one's decisions are the result of internalizing the values of one's family and then changing and refining them to make them genuinely one's own. A commitment to the larger good, a sense of wonder, and the ability to say "yes" to life and all it brings are caught by children who experience them in the need-satisfying adults in their early life. As is often painfully obvious to parents, children have an amazing awareness of our real life style, our real values, our real commitments -- in short, our real religion. Frequently they take within themselves and mirror back to us in their behavior, not our head-level, Saturday or Sunday morning religion, but our deeper orientations of which we may not be fully aware until we see it in them. When this happens, it's a challenge to do some more work on the lifelong task of keeping our basic religious life growing.

Every crisis is a spiritual crisis and an opportunity for spiritual growth; it is a chance to reexamine our answers to the big questions of life-the questions with which our religious heritage has struggled through the centuries. Why do we suffer? What is life all about? What is worth living for? Sometimes we have trouble admitting to our children that we haven't got all the answers, although such an admission may be the stimulus that encourages them to search for their own meanings and values.

In the final analysis, the resources for using painful experiences creatively come from relationships -- with oneself, with one's family and friends, and with God. In a world of uncertainty and insecurity, "things outside ourselves change-and many times we have little control over those elements -- but if we learn to utilize our inner resources, we carry our security around with us." 2. The only certainty is that the future will be a surprise. We cannot avoid crisis, but learning to handle each one as it comes, and using it as a growth experience, makes us better prepared for the surprises of the future, and assures our children a chance of growing up as the independent and creative persons we dream for them to be.


Recommended Reading

Ayrault, Evelyn W., You Can Raise Your Handicapped Child (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1964). A guide for parents.

Melton, David, Todd, A Father's Story (New York: Dell Books, 1968). How a brain-injured boy was helped.



1. The words of the parents of a mentally retarded child. Mrs. Max A. Murray, "Needs of Parents of Mentally Retarded Children," American Journal of Mental Deficiency (May 1959), p. 1084.

2. Virginia M. Axline, Dibs: In Search of Self (Boston: Houghton Muffin Co., 1965), p. 51.