Preventing Family Crisis

It is important for families experiencing stressful situations to recognize the power they have to create more satisfying and less stressful lives. Family services staff and other social services staff may benefit from learning these practical strategies for supporting families in crisis.

The following is an excerpt from Supporting Families in Crisis.

Key Concepts
Background Information
Identifying Families at Risk of Crisis
Engaging Families in Crisis Prevention
Solution-Focused Approach
Stress Reduction
Guided Conversations
Solution-Focused Plans
Ideas to Extend Practice

Key Concepts

  • A crisis is an upset in a steady state causing a disruption in a family's usual way of functioning. Families in crisis may find that their usual ways of coping or problem solving do not work; as a result, a crisis may be a time of heightened family stress and anxiety.
  • Crisis prevention is aimed at relieving family stress. Many families experience stress and need support at some time. The interdisciplinary resources of the Head Start community are particularly well-suited to address the needs of families experiencing stress. Most families are open to help and support in overcoming the stress-producing situations. Often, Head Start's work with families in this area is geared toward crisis prevention.
  • Some crises can be anticipated and prevented, while other crisis situations require support. Certain life situations or events may lead to mounting tension and stress. Families, under stress and operating outside of their usual range of experience, are often open to help and support before crises erupt. In order for staff to anticipate and prevent crises, they should watch for stress-producing situations or events and then work in partnership with a family to find solutions.
  • A strengths perspective, which staff can bring to families, is the key to crisis prevention. The strengths perspective emphasizes respect for the way the family views itself and its world. It accentuates what the family has accomplished and does well, and builds on these competencies to find solutions to stress-producing situations or events.
  • Solution-focused plans work to prevent crisis. A solution-focused approach, which is based upon the strengths perspective, is designed to prevent a family crisis. Solution-focused plans are statements, written by families, with staff assistance, that spell out solutions to the major causes or sources of family stress.

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Background Information

Supportive interactions with families have the potential to offset a family crisis. Staff support—in all of its many forms—helps families respond to stress-producing situations with adaptability.

Despite Head Start's supportive efforts, Head Start families may experience crises. Crises erupt whenever families find themselves unable to cope with or resolve stressful situations or events. Most simply stated, stress builds and takes its toll on all family members, leaving the family susceptible to crisis.

... Staff are encouraged to identify families particularly at risk of crises and help them find solutions to the issues they see as the most stress-producing. The family support skills … (e.g., building staff-family partnerships, identifying family strengths, partnership talk, goal setting, and implementing family partnership agreements) provide the basis for [a] solution-focused approach to crisis prevention. …

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Identifying Families at Risk of Crisis

Although no family is immune to crises, some families are particularly vulnerable. Early identification and support by Head Start staff may help the family avoid a crisis. This module offers staff a starting place for identifying families at risk of crisis.

Stress-producing situations or events, which may be outside the family's usual range of experiences, include:

  • Family Situations. Examples include the desertion of a parent, a runaway teen, an unplanned pregnancy, a serious illness or injury, neighbors' complaints about the family, a child abuse and neglect investigation, illegal drug use, or spouse abuse. Events that many families view as happy times, such as a marriage, the birth of a child, a child going to Head Start or public school for the first time, an adolescent becoming more independent, a grown child leaving the home, a family's move to a new community, a new job, or retirement, can be very stressful times for other families.
  • Economic Situations. Sudden or chronic financial strain caused by loss of employment or public assistance, a theft of household cash or belongings, high medical expenses, missed child support payments, haphazard credit card use, and money "lost" to gambling or drug addiction lead to many family crises.
  • Community Situations. Examples of stressful community events include deliberate acts of violence, such as drive-by shootings, neighborhood riots or civil disturbances, and gang activities. Crowded or deteriorating housing conditions, lack of access to culturally appropriate community resources and services, and inadequate educational programs are some other ways a community may contribute to family crises.
  • Natural Elements. Disasters such as floods, hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes can create crises for families. Even extended periods of high heat and humidity, gloomy weather, and excessively cold weather can be very stressful and contribute to a family crisis.

Attentive staff encounter many opportunities to identify families at risk. The on-going process of developing family partnerships through home visits, meetings with a family about a child's progress, observations of children's and parents' behaviors, news about a significant event in the life of a family, and/or remarks made by parents during seemingly casual conversations may signal that a family is in distress. The identification of families at risk hinges on staff with "antennas" always up to receive the signals.

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Engaging Families in Crisis Prevention

When engaging families in crisis prevention, staff must come from a strengths—rather than a deficit—perspective. A strengths perspective rests on five basic assumptions. First and foremost, despite life's problems, all people possess strengths. Second, family motivation is encouraged by an emphasis on strengths. Third, the discovery of family strengths occurs through a cooperative partnership between staff and families. Fourth, a focus on strengths reduces the temptation to "blame the victim" and shows, instead, how the family has managed to survive. Fifth, all environments and situations—even the most bleak—contain strengths.

Once a family signals distress, it is critical for staff to reach out and show interest in hearing about the family's situation. Some families may not take or need the assistance offered by staff, but might still feel supported knowing that Head Start cares about them. Others may not be ready to explore "private" family matters with staff, but will be ready at a later time. Most families, however, will welcome staff into their lives, relieved that someone cares and wants to listen and help.

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Solution-Focused Approach

A solution-focused approach, which is based upon a strengths perspective, helps families shift away from a focus on "problems" to a focus on "solutions." Listening to a family marks the beginning of a solution-focused approach to crisis prevention. Staff ask family members to talk about what is causing them the most stress—how the issue is affecting them and their family—and the kind of crisis they fear the family will experience if no solution is found. Staff then support the family as members find solutions. Some strategies include:

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Stress Reduction

One way to prevent crises is through stress reduction. A family must be able to deal effectively with stress-producing situations in order to prevent an escalating state of crisis. Stress, when dealt with appropriately, can energize the family to grow, learn, connect, and achieve. Families that are able to see (or are helped to see) a stressful situation or event as a challenge, rather than as a threat, are likely to resolve or adapt to the situation quickly. Typically, such families have solved problems well in the past. With support and encouragement, families can avoid crises by learning and practicing stress reduction strategies that are well within their reach.

Some stress reduction strategies that staff can offer families to help ease tension include getting physical activity, making time for fun, or practicing positive self-talk. Thus, families are able to find the coping skills and resources to master the stressful situations, which leaves them stronger and better prepared for dealing with stress in the future.

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Guided Conversations

Through guided conversations, staff use questions to find solutions to stress-producing situations or events. It is important for staff to adapt these questions to their own personality and style of relating, as well as to the family's. Types of questions include:

Wish questions, to lead the family to where it wants to be;

Exception-finding questions, to uncover the ways family members have solved or managed problems in the past. These questions also heighten awareness of the contributions, or the strengths, of family members which led to previous solutions;

Scaling questions, to help both the family and staff break down complex issues into concrete and measurable terms;

Coping questions, to produce an upswing in the family's confidence and motivation. The new-found confidence and motivation become yet other examples of family strengths for staff to recognize and affirm; and

"What's better" questions, to provide staff opportunities to point out and reinforce how the thoughts, actions, and feelings of family members contributed to improving the stressful situation.

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Families showing signs of severe distress are likely to require a more comprehensive approach to crisis prevention. Solution-focused plans, designed to prevent crises, are made by families with the assistance of staff; they pinpoint solutions to the major causes or sources of family stress. A solution-focused plan is based on the following questions:

— What stress-producing situation(s) is the family facing?
— What issue is causing the most stress for the family?
— What are the family's options for resolving the situation?
— Which option(s) does the family want to try first?
— What strengths and/or resources are available within the family to improve the situation? The Head Start community? The broader community?

For example, if a single unemployed mother sees herself as being physically drained from the demands of parenting and has no sources of support, a solution-focused plan "to find someone to watch my kids two afternoons a week" might be one route toward her rejuvenation. Achieving this seemingly simple plan might require many steps for both the mother and the worker. The mother may need help from staff to develop a list of potential baby-sitters (e.g., other Head Start families, neighbors, relatives, friends from church); practice asking for help; or decide how she will make good use of her "free" time. The staff person may need to check out community resources that provide respite for parents in distress; introduce the mother to other Head Start parents; suggest stress reduction strategies the mother might try when feeling overwhelmed; and, encourage the mom to pursue her talents and special interests.

There is no "magic" crisis prevention recipe. Each family has different strengths, beliefs, needs, and desires. Even families experiencing similar stressors will require different types of responses. The challenge to staff is to sharpen their focus on families at risk of crisis, bring out a strengths perspective in these families, and lead the families toward solutions before crises erupt.

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Next Steps: Ideas to Extend Practice

Reducing Stress in Head Start Families

Have staff go over the stress-reduction suggestions... Point out that several suggestions could be developed into Head Start activities aimed at building family resiliency to crisis. For example, Head Start might encourage families to get more physical exercise by sponsoring a family volleyball tournament or aerobic dance classes. Other possibilities include establishing a mutual support group for single parents, step-parents, new parents, etc.; developing and distributing a brochure to families on self-help groups in the community; or planning and carrying out fun social events for families, such as a Head Start bus trip to a baseball game. Explore staff ideas for Head Start activities and help them to choose at least one to develop and offer to families.

Involving Parents in Crisis Prevention Efforts

Suggest staff form a task force to identify and address a major source of stress for Head Start families. As envisioned, the task force would be composed of Head Start parents and staff interested in crisis prevention. Some steps the task force might take include conducting a survey among Head Start families to get their views on what makes life stressful for them; identifying a source of stress common to many Head Start families; brainstorming solutions; and choosing one or more solutions to develop and implement as a crisis-prevention strategy.

For example, if the task force learns that many families are experiencing stress from recent changes in community resources, the task force might arrange for the families to get together to express their concerns, learn the "facts" about the changes by having community officials meet with them, and discuss the ways they can help each other deal effectively with the changes.

Enhancing Skills in Crisis Prevention

Have staff identify the skills, relevant to preventing family crisis, that they would like to develop further through reading, additional training, a peer study group, and/or ongoing coaching. The skill development might focus on additional ways to reduce stress, engaging families in guided conversations, or helping families develop solution-focused plans. Work with staff to develop a plan for improving the skill(s) they identify, including opportunities to meet again with you as the plan is implemented.

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Guided Conversations with Families

Discovering and using strengths are the keys to crisis prevention. The types of questions described below are useful for bringing a strengths perspective to families; the questions encourage families to find solutions to stressful situations or events. It is important to adapt the examples below to fit your personality and your style of relating, as well as to fit the family with which you are working.

Wish Questions
It is not unusual for families in stressful situations to want to talk about what is "wrong" with their lives. After listening to the families' concerns, it is important to direct them toward a path of constructive change. Wish questions help families to define the direction they want their lives to take. They are most appropriate to use with families experiencing stress in interpersonal relationships.

You might say something like this:
"Let's pretend for a few minutes that a wish comes true in your family. The wish is that the concerns you've shared with me today somehow disappear. How will you know the wish has come true? What will be different?"

Follow-up questions are then asked to reinforce what the family wants for itself (the presence of something). For example, you might ask a parent:
     �� "How will you feel after your wish comes true?"
     �� "How will your family react?"
     �� "What will they do differently?"
     �� "How will you react to the changes?"
     �� "What will you do?"

Wish questions lead the family to where it wants to be.

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Stress Reduction Strategies1

Everyone needs stress. Does that surprise you? Perhaps so, but it is true. Without stress, life would be dull and unexciting. Stress adds flavor, challenge, and opportunity to life. Too much stress, however, can seriously affect a person's physical and mental well-being. A major challenge, in this stress-filled world of today, is to make stress work for families instead of against them.

When stress becomes prolonged or particularly frustrating, it can become harmful—causing distress. Helping families recognize the early signs of distress and then doing something about the causes of distress can make an important difference in the quality of the families' lives.

To help families use stress in a positive way and to prevent stress from becoming distress, families need to become aware of their own reactions to stressful events. The body responds to stress by going through three stages: 1) alarm; 2) resistance; and, 3) exhaustion. Once the body signals stress, it is possible to prevent distress or minimize its impact when it can't be avoided.

Below are some suggestions you can offer to families to help ease the tensions caused by stress.

  • Get physical activity. When someone is nervous, angry, frustrated, or upset, the stress can be released through exercise or physical activity. Running, walking, playing sports, or working in a garden are just some of the activities family members might try to relieve stress.
  • Share the stress. Let families know it helps to talk about their concerns and worries. Suggest that talking to a friend, a relative, a teacher, or a professional counselor may help them to see their worries in a different light. Explain that knowing when to ask for help may help them to avoid more serious difficulties later.
  • Know your limits. If a stressful situation or event is beyond the family's control and cannot be changed at the moment, encourage the family not to fight it. The family may have to accept the situation—for now—until such time when a change can occur.
  • Take care of yourself. Everyone in the family needs to get enough rest and eat well. If family members are irritable and tense from lack of sleep or from not eating correctly, they will have less ability to deal with stress. If stress repeatedly keeps a family member from sleeping, suggest he/she ask a doctor for help.
  • Make time for fun. Encourage families to schedule time not only for work, but also for recreation and play. Families need a break from the daily routine to just relax, have fun, and promote their well-being.
  • Be a participant. Let families know that sitting alone and dwelling on worries only adds to feelings of frustration. Instead, encourage family members to get involved and become a community participant. Suggest involvement in Head Start, or in neighborhood or volunteer organizations. Emphasize that they can help themselves by helping others; getting involved in the community will attract people to them and they'll be on their way to making new friends and enjoying new activities.
  • Check off your tasks. Point out to families that trying to take care of everything at once can seem overwhelming, and, as a result, they may not accomplish anything. Instead, encourage families to make a list of what tasks they have to do, then do one at a time, and check them off as they're completed. Suggest that families give priority to the most important tasks and do those first.
  • Practice positive self-talk. Suggest family members take time out during the day to talk to themselves about what's right in their lives—to give themselves a pep talk—and remember happy family times.
  • Practice give and take. Have family members look at how they interact. Is a lot of energy being directed on proving who is "right"? On proving there is a "best" way to get things done? Encourage family members to try cooperation instead of confrontation—to build a support network within the family. A little give and take on all sides reduces family tension and makes everyone feel more comfortable.
  • Allow yourself to cry. Let family members know a good cry can be a healthy way to bring relief to anxiety. It might even prevent a headache or other physical reaction.
  • Create a quiet scene. Encourage family members to take the turmoil out of a stressful situation by painting a quiet scene, mentally or on paper, reading a book or magazine, playing soothing music, or taking a long and relaxing bath.
  • Avoid abusive behaviors. Let families know that while alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs, and violent outbursts may relieve stress temporarily, they do not remove the stressful conditions.

1Adapted from Louis E. Kopolow, Plain Talk about Handling Stress (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health, Reprinted 1987).

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"Preventing Family Crisis." Supporting Families in Crisis. Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2000. English.

Last Reviewed: June 2009

Last Updated: June 19, 2013