Supporting Families in Crisis:
Taken from Training Guides for
the Head Start Learning Community
A crisis may present an opportunity for
positive change. A crisis is a time for helping families
discover and strengthen problem-solving skills. During a
period of intense crisis, when usual methods of coping fail,
families are often open t0 learning new problem-solving approaches.
Once a crisis is resolved constructively, many families find
themselves strengthened by the experience and better prepared for
life's next challenge. On the other hand, some families,
without the support and resources to resolve crisis constructively,
risk a downward spiral in their functioning and may never fully
A crisis is identified by a family's
reactions to a stress-producing situation or event. A
crisis is an upset in a steady state causing a disruption or
breakdown in an individual's or family's usual pattern of
functioning. Families in crisis find that their usual ways of
coping or problem solving do not work; as a result they feel
vulnerable, anxious, and overwhelmed.
A crisis has four interacting elements. Generally
a family is thrust into a crisis when two or more elements,
contributing to a state of crisis, interact., These elements
include: 1) experiencing a stress-producing situation; 2) having
difficulty coping; 3) showing chronic difficulty meeting basic
family responsibilities; and 4) having no apparent sources of
support. Differences among the interacting elements make each
A crisis is usually, characterized by
five phases. A state of crisis in a family is short-lived,
usually lasting no longer than six weeks, and has five phases.
The five phases may occur in order or overlap and intertwine:
1) the crisis is triggered then the family 2) sees the crisis as
threatening 3) responds in a disorganized manner, 4) searches for a
solution, and 5) adopts new coping strategies.
People in crisis typically experience a
variety of psychological effects.
Difficulty thinking clearly, dwelling on meaningless activities,
expressions of hostility or numbness, impulsiveness, dependency, and
feelings of incompetence are some effects of crisis staff must
anticipate and understand.
Much of the work of Head Start staff involves crisis
prevention. However, staff cannot always predict nor prevent crises in
A crisis is an upset in a steady state causing a disruption
or breakdown in a family's usual pattern of functioning. Families in
crisis find that their usual ways of coping or problem solving do not work; as a
result they can feel threatened. This module prepares staff for
recognizing and assessing families that are thrust into a state of crisis.
Elements Contributing to a Crisis
A family moves into a state of crisis when two or more of the
four elements that contribute to a crisis interact. These elements are: 1)
experiencing a stress-producing situation, 2) having difficulty coping, 3)
showing a chronic inability to meet basic family responsibilities, and 4) having
no apparent resources of support. In order to identify and assess a crisis
situation, it is important for staff to consider four questions that address
these elements. What specific situation is producing the most stress for
the family? What difficulties in coping are evident in the family? Is the family
having difficulty meeting its responsibilities? What supports are available to
Phases of a Crisis
A crisis is usually characterized by five phases, which may
occur in order, overlap, and/or intertwine. Awareness of the phases, as
well as awareness of a family's responses to each phase, allows staff to examine
a crisis. As described below, the phases of crisis that a family generally
The tension and struggles created by the crisis provide the
motivation for the family to learn and apply new coping strategies, and use new
resources. With supportive intervention, the family discovers it can
master and over come the crisis or, at least acknowledge, accept and adapt to
the loss surrounding the crisis.
The Timing of Head Start
The opportunity a crisis provides for enhancing the coping
and problem-solving skills, of families depends largely on the timing of the
intervention. During the initial phases of a crisis, a family may be
receptive to intervention. The anxiety produced by the crisis, coupled
with the realization that no ready response works, motivates the family to try
new coping strategies and resources. Families who receive support and
assistance to help them deal with a crisis quickly are likely to stabilize
within a few weeks.
While crisis intervention can not cure all the family's
stressors, it does provide the opportunity for staff to teach the family how to
focus on and resolve the current crisis. After gaining the skills and
resources to resolve the crisis, the family realizes it has some control over
its life and the capacity to fix other stressful problems.
In contrast, families who go without support and assistance
during a crisis may get caught up in a chain of events or memories of past
traumas that only lead to more stress. As a result, these families may
experience increasingly severe breakdowns in family functioning. Violence,
neglect, or other destructive behaviors may have the potential to put families
in contact with the community court and child protective services systems.
Effects of Crisis
People in crisis typically experience a variety of
psychological effects. It is important for the psychological effects to be
anticipated and interpreted correctly. These effects are temporary and not
indicators of mental illness.