Supporting Families in Crisis:
Taken from Training Guides for
the Head Start Learning Community
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 tin overcoming the stress-producing situations.
Often, Head Start's work with families in this area is geared toward
Some crises can be anticipated and prevented,
while others 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 strength 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
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.
Supportive interactions with families have the
potential to offset a family crisis. Staff support - in all of its
may forms - helps families respond to stress-producing situations with
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.
This module brings into focus the crisis prevention
aspect of Head Start's work with families. Staff are encouraged to
identify families particularly at risk of crises and help them find
solutions to the issues that they see as the most stress-producing.
The family support skills taught in other modules provide the basis for
this module's solutions-focused approach to crisis prevention. In
this module, staff learn some additional techniques for employing those
skills in their partnerships with families.
Identifying Families at Risk of Crisis
Although no family is immune to crisis, 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.
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 drugs 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
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 family crisis.
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 crisis.
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 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 parent's 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.
Engaging Families in
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.
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:
One way to prevent crisis 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 that 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.
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. This 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
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.