What Is Family Stress Theory?

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The family stress theory explores the changes within a family dynamic that occur as a result of a stressful event.

The theory was developed by sociologist Reuben Hill in 1949. He was particularly interested in how families were impacted by World War II and looked into how war-induced separations and reunifications shifted families.

Noticing that the separations and reunions were crises within the family system, he spotted a pattern. He noted that the inciting event interacts with the parent’s internal and external resources, producing how the family makes meaning of the inciting event. In turn, this produces the outcome of the crisis.

Why Is Family Stress Theory Important?

Within every family is a family system. This system can be considered a collection of interdependent roles, a cohesive set of values, expectations, and responses to the environment.

For example, the parents are expected to be caregivers, and the children rely upon them. However, the oldest child may be expected to adopt some caregiving responsibilities, like watching their younger siblings when their parents are out of the house. Additionally, a family may have values based on occupation or educational standards. For example, it may be taboo in some families to not attend college, while other families may expect all members to work in a family business.

What Happens in a Family Unit When an Issue Arises?

When an issue arises, the response can either lead to strong parenting skills or poor treatment. This response is heavily dependent upon the parent’s resources. These resources can be internal or external:

Understanding this theory offers the opportunity to make more empowered decisions regarding stress. 

How to Cultivate Resources During Stressful Times

Family stress theory states that resources can be pivotal in the outcome of the crisis. However, certain resources are outside a family's control. For example, a family's financial situation or access to meet our basic needs cannot always be controlled. In these situations, you must look at external resources you can access.  

Example Scenario No. 1: A Parent Loses Their Job

Let's say you are a parent who loses your job. This thrusts your family into crisis. Even though you’re applying for every job you can, you still have no luck. You notice that you have less emotional availability when parenting and that your children’s behavior begins to shift.

This would be an example of a time to lean on social and community support. Calling upon a family or community member to help with childcare could be instrumental in providing your children care while allowing you the space and time you need.

Another option is exploring community resources. For example, there might be a job fair you can attend. Alternatively, there could be a subsidized after school program your children could attend. 

Example Scenario No. 2: A Parent Learns That Their Child Is Disrupting Class at School

If you're a parent and you receive a call from your child’s school that they are acting out during class, you might grow extremely frustrated by their behavior and are embarrassed to receive such a phone call.

You could attempt to discipline your child through harsh words and intimidation tactics. Alternatively, you could pull on your internal and external resources by exploring with your child why they feel the need to act out and collaborating with their teachers to reinforce supportive coping tools. 

Coping With Family Stress

In the midst of hardship, it might be hard to imagine how to decrease stress within the family system. However, even small actions can lead to great outcomes.

Plan Family Meetings

First, consider having a family meeting where you can each spend some time exploring how the current stressors are impacting you. Before digging into dialogue with each other, take time to set some shared agreements.

For example, can you each agree not to talk over each other? If one of you starts to raise your voice, can the group agree to take a break from talking for a few minutes? This can help ensure each member of the family feels safe and heard.

Consider Family Therapy

If the family meetings seem like they could result in further anguish among family members, consider attending family therapy. In a family therapy session, a trained mental health professional can help each of you stay on track while resolving your challenges.

Schedule Alone Time

It may also be helpful to create a family schedule where each family member gets an hour of alone time. During this time, that family member is allowed to relax and engage in an activity they like without interruptions from others. Doing so can allow greater space for rest and relaxation.

Create a Zen Corner

To create a culture of mental wellness in your household, a zen corner could be really helpful. A zen corner is a part of the house that is designated for meditation. When things are feeling overwhelming, it is a place to go to take deep breaths and regulate your nervous system. While they are often created in children's rooms, you can opt to make one that is friendly for kids and adults alike.

A Word From Verywell

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Maybe it is joining a support group, seeking therapy, or asking your loved ones for assistance. Regardless of where you land, remember that you are never alone, and support awaits. Things can always get better.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Daneshpour, M. Examining Family Stress: Theory and Research. Clinical Psychology Studies. 2017; 7(28). doi: 10.22054/jcps.2017.8150

  2. Wu Q, Xu Y. Parenting stress and risk of child maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic: A family stress theory-informed perspective. Dev Child Welf.. 2020;2(3):180-196. doi: 10.1177/2516103220967937

  3. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Stress.

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.