Family Chaos or Cohesion? by Rosemary Rawlins

RRawlins smallEveryone has a family history

We grow up in our families knowing where we fit in; and functional or dysfunctional, we come to know what to expect from day to day. Family routines, schedules, rituals, and traditions reinforce our sense of security and belonging. Shared values, love, and trust bind us. So it follows that when something unexpected and devastating happens to one family member, each member of the family is profoundly affected.

Finding a new family rhythm after one member has sustained a brain injury can be challenging at best or chaotic at worst, because brain injury causes immediate and drastic changes for all family members.

Crisis can bring out the best or worst in us. Naturally, family members go through a period of shock and denial, and often want their old life back. Emotions run rampant. In a perfect world, every family member would cope flawlessly with this sudden life change, but this rarely happens. Fear, anger, and tension usually build up over time. Getting through each day with the heavy weight of worry and uncertainty creates exhaustion in every way a person can be exhausted.

If the injured family member usually provided a major portion of income for the family, the strain may be even more severe. Disrupted finances put pressure on all family members, compounding emotional strains.

The news isn’t all bad

Mother Comforting SonWhile we may not be able to control our circumstances, we can try to control our reactions and behavior. This is where we truly have influence over whether our family falls into chaos or becomes more cohesive.

There are ways of interacting that can help families through this time of upheaval just as there are ways of interacting that cause more disruption and pain. Here are a few insights garnered from my own experience. Believe me, I have exhibited all of these behaviors multiple times

What Does Not Help

Criticism does not help.

Think about how you feel when someone starts a sentence in any of these ways: “You definitely should have…I can’t believe you didn’t…Why on earth would you …”

Being pushy or controlling does not help.

Hearing the phrase: “You need to…” instantly makes me want to do the opposite of what is being requested. “You need to stop being a pain!” or “You need to clean your room!”

Yelling does not help.

If you must yell and scream, do it alone. I used to scream to let out my frustrations when I was alone in the house or car, or I’d blast the car radio and sing (scream) along.

Blame and defensiveness do not help.

Especially when discussing treatments with family members. In fact, defensiveness usually escalates the situation because it often leads to back and forth defensiveness, like this:

“You think I need to check everything with you?”

“Doesn’t my opinion count for anything?”

“Oh, so now it’s my fault that you feel left out!”

“You never include me. You just do what you want…”

This conversation can go on forever without accomplishing anything.

 Resisting change does not help.

Try not to say, “That’s not my job.” When one family member is critically injured, role changes are inevitable. Try to make peace with it and be helpful.

What Does Help

Respect helps.

When family members respect each other’s feelings, allow them to be expressed, and share their hopes and fears together, family bonds usually strengthen.

Requesting help directly and politely helps.

“I could really use your help; would you please do the dishes while I ….”

Checking yourself helps.

Don’t let a bad day get worse by blowing up at someone who doesn’t deserve it. Head it off by saying, “I’m overtired today, so if I sound angry, please realize it’s not you, and call me out, okay?”

Diffusing arguments helps.

If you find your own anger escalating because someone is picking a fight, take a deep breath. Try to listen to the other person as best you can to diffuse the argument by showing that you understand what the other person is saying. Using the example above, you could respond, “I value your opinion, but the doctor said she needed a decision on the spot.”

Admitting when you make a mistake helps.

Brain injury creates a steep learning curve for most people. Expect to make mistakes, but own up to them when you do.

“I should not have criticized you. That was wrong.”

“I thought I was right, but I made things worse. I’m sorry.”

It’s your choice to laugh or cry as a family

One final thing that helped my own family remain close is this: we often laughed until we cried, or cried until we laughed—together. Looking back now, eleven years later, we are all thankful that we each made a huge effort to get along during some very tough times. It has made our lives during smoother times all the sweeter.

About the author

Rosemary Rawlins is the author of Learning by Accident, a memoir.   You can learn more about Rosemary at


Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey

Special Collection on Brain Injury Journey

 This article is posted with permission from Brain Injury Journey – Hope, Help, Healing, Vol 1, 2014.

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