Helping Families Cope With Disasters


A disaster doesn’t have to mean family problems if families remain connected and look for opportunities to transform themselves and their communities.

Shortly before his death, I had the pleasure of having dinner with Salvador Minuchin. It was an honor to hear him comment on my work when I had spent so much of my career reflecting on his. He said something that has stuck with me ever since: “All those layers of systems in your work, that’s incredible how you can think about them all at the same time.” I smiled, thinking that here was one of the pioneers of psychiatry (and family therapy) who had forced individually focused clinicians to think systemically, albeit only as far as the family as a unit. While Minuchin would eventually consider the impact of other systems, he always came back to the family first. 

I think I mumbled a response along the lines of “I’m just following in your footsteps,” but the comment has stayed with me because we are indeed exploring new territory with regard to family therapy, especially as clinicians respond to the growing number of human-made and natural disasters that are exposing families to acute and chronic stressors that they are ill-equipped to handle.

If we are nested like Russian dolls inside our family, then our family is its own small doll nested inside social and physical ecologies. These ecologies include everything from the institutions families depend upon, to the natural surroundings that provide opportunities for recreation and reflection. Our natural world, though, has become unpredictable, and along with it has come serious disruptions to how we organize our lives.

Climate change (or climate emergency, if one is watching the news) is forcing families to change. Whether it is wildfires, hurricanes, or mass migration following community violence that occurs when resources become scarce, climate change disrupts our fragile social order. When it does, individuals and families as systems are negatively impacted. Treating the family means treating the family as just one system of many mutually dependent systems. Minuchin wasn’t the only one to observe how complicated this can be. And yet, there is also poetry in understanding the sweeping interrelationships between families, institutions and even the natural ecosystems upon which we depend. Here are some examples.

Wildfires destroy far more than property. They change people’s perceptions of their future and their sense that life is predictable and fair. Seemingly random events that wipe out thousands of homes in an instant cause families to turn inwards. Though the tragedy of loss can burden families for decades, that loss can also be a catalyst for families to revisit their values and patterns of communication. That can be a good thing. It can even cause what Angela Duckworth (2016), the author of Grit, describes as ‘negative visualization’ or the momentary pause to appreciate what life would be like without the people and possessions we already have. Not surprising, then, that when wildfires destroyed most of the community of Lesser Slave Lake in Northern Alberta in 2011, researchers found many family members committed themselves to pay more attention to those they love and put aside the distractions of cell phones and long work hours.

Clinically, disasters force us to ask not only what was lost, but also what has been found. This is a current theme in a large study (Resilience Research Centre, 2021) I lead on resilience of young people, their families and communities in towns affected by the decarbonization of our economy. Over five years, we have watched the town of Maple Hill in the middle of the oil patch go from a booming economy to near total economic collapse. In this case, the crisis is being caused by what social ecologists refer to as a ‘slow’ variable, with families having to incrementally adjust to accommodate macro-level forces (like the world price of oil and government subsidies for electric vehicles) which are well beyond the individual control of anyone in Maple Hill. With the growing realization that oil and gas industries may never recover to their pre-2014 levels, and with the pandemic having caused many businesses to shutter altogether, Maple Hill families are being displaced at almost the same rate as coastal dwellers whose houses no longer protect them from the swallowing ocean. If families are to survive such transitions, we need to better understand the impact of climate related factors on family systems as a whole.

Among the changes we’re finding which family therapists need to account for are the following.

Changes to identity. Our families have collective identities, formed through the stories we tell about ourselves and our histories. When a natural disaster wipes out a family home or a climate emergency like Hurricane Sandy displaces large numbers of people, those narratives that shape our collective identity are at risk of disappearing. For residents of Maple Hill, they were a ‘boomtown’ on the prairies, and if they weren’t that, they were the idyllic small town of hard scrabble farmers who were there before the oil industry discovered them in the 1950s. The problem is that there is no in-between, no post-carbon economy new identity onto which families can latch. It is only recently that the town council has begun to fully embrace the idea of economic diversification, which means helping families adjust to a new identity as clean energy workers (think geothermal) and agribusiness. These changes aren’t bad, but they disrupt 60 years of people working hard and playing even harder in a town that has been awash in cash more years than not. Can families accept a slower pace? The answer is still emerging.

Gender relations. Boom and bust economic cycles transform gender relations. Who earns, who does the caregiving, and who is absent or present because one has to travel to find work is all up for grabs when industries are closing down and suddenly the economic engine for a family changes. It’s the same after any ‘fast’ disaster like a forest fire, too, with caregivers having to rethink who earns and who stays at home when there are kids or a dependent adult in need of caregiving.

Work-life balance. Natural disasters shift people’s priorities. They remind us to be grateful for the small things when the big things like jobs, homes and even lives are lost. That change can be stressful if families had previously established patterns regarding who did which chores, who had time to themselves, and who was or wasn’t underfoot. When one family member changes their values, it doesn’t mean everyone else is necessarily happy with the change.

Training and retraining. Time and again in our study (Resilience Research Centre, 2021), we saw all ages making decisions about their future employability based on their assessment of current risks and opportunities. Will Maple Hill be a place in which to settle? Or a place from which to launch? Where before there was the promise of large salaries with minimal education, new industries in a post-covid, post-recovery world mean acquiring new skillsets that come with a cost. We saw many families changing their advice to older teens, while young people themselves were sometimes hesitant, and sometimes enthusiastic to embrace a future that was sure to look very different.

Communication. Just because families should discuss the impact of changing environments doesn’t mean they do. But changing economies and a changing community means they actually must. While good communication makes, as Froma Walsh (2011) reminds us, families more resilient, slow and fast environment-related disasters that threaten families with mass displacement don’t necessarily lead to more open and transparent behavior by adults or children. In our study (Resilience Research Centre, 2021), though, families that were problem-solving together and sharing their fears about the present and future of their community, seemed to be doing better than those where the tenuousness of the future was ignored at the dinner table.

Stress levels. Disasters cause stress, but the solution to that stress is often found in maladaptive behavior. Maple Hill has more liquor stores than places of worship. Economic booms bring stress too, but it is a stress that people feel is of their own making (and the money and opportunities are good). Disasters put people in uncomfortable positions like downsizing their housing (or becoming precariously housed in temporary lodging). Families split up, or domestic violence increases. While a disaster can prompt positive transformation, it can also tumble a family into the very worse of behaviors, too.

Political and social upheaval. Families share values, and when there is a sense of collective trauma, and that trauma feels unjust or the consequence of negligence by political leaders or social institutions like banks and oil companies, there can be a real felt sense of betrayal. That betrayal can lead to ideological fervor that has propelled plenty of well-functioning societies into fascism and xenophobia. Scarce resources do not always make families more tolerant and cooperative. Disasters cause shortages, to both material resources like jobs and housing, and a sense of safety or confidence in one’s government. Collective trauma can be a catalyst for genocide and war. Natural disasters can make families as a whole feel left out. If recovery is not perceived as quick and fairly distributed, it is not unusual for those left behind to look to their family for affirmation that their situation is best blamed on others.

Seemingly random events that wipe out thousands of homes in an instant cause families to turn inwards. Though the tragedy of loss can burden families for decades, that loss can also be a catalyst for families to revisit their values and patterns of communication.

All of these dynamics are at play during family therapy. The couple adjusting to the new normal of a former wage earner now at home as the caregiver is unlikely to embrace the change when the former caregiver is earning just half what their partner earned before. Changing collective identities, feelings of injustice, and problems communicating can make a bad situation even worse.

Family therapists can help families become both more rugged and better resourced, the two Rs I refer to in my work on resilience (2019). There are at least half a dozen things we can encourage families to try when they are experiencing a disaster or were displaced because of one.

Maintain routines and structure. Orderly days make the future feel predictable and ensure that mundane tasks get done and family members maintain connections through bedtime schedules and family sit-down meals.

Find a collective identity that persists through the disaster. Families need stories that help them integrate who they were as a group before the disaster and who they will be during and after it. Are they the types to ‘tough it out,’ or ‘make whatever changes are necessary.’ Good stories that are described in detail give families a script to follow.

Experience whatever control is possible. Families in refugee camps, and families whose homes have burned down, avoid trauma when they have some say over the decisions that shape their lives. If that means helping a family get an insurance claim started or finding an appropriate daycare, these small measures of self-efficacy give families as a whole a sense that life will one day return to normal.

Families are more rugged and more likely to find the resources they need when they are working together to take advantage of opportunities and expressing gratitude for what they still have.

Build relationships. Showing empathy to one another is the glue that sustains family networks. Family members are likely still there, even if they are not immediately present. The internet can help families reconnect even if some members have been forcibly displaced. When biological family members aren’t available, there may be other opportunities to find non-biological substitutes. Chances are everyone after a disaster is experiencing some sense of isolation and loneliness, which means everyone is looking for the same opportunity to share a home, a meal, or advice.

Look for positive messages of hope. While positive thinking may be something individuals do, families can create a forum for the exchange of positive messages. Families are more rugged and more likely to find the resources they need when they are working together to take advantage of opportunities and expressing gratitude for what they still have.

Disasters may not always be preventable, but the negative impact on families is. Making families resilient is possible when family therapists attend to the family as a system and the co-occurring systems that can help families ‘build back stronger.’

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Michael Ungar, PhD, director of Resilience Research Centre, Dalhousie University, is an AAMFT Professional Member and holds the Supervision and Clinical Fellow designations. He is among the best-known researchers on resilience in the world. He has adapted that research into the R2 Resilience Program (www.resilienceresearch.org/R2), an evidence-informed approach to building individual and family strengths under stress. He is the author of 16 books including Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, a book for adults experiencing stress at home and at work, and Multisystemic Resilience: Adaptation and Transformation in Contexts of Change, an open-source edited volume for researchers. His blog, Nurturing Resilience, can be read on Psychology Today’s website.


Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Resilience Research Centre. (2021). Our research. Retrieved from https://resilienceresearch.org/our-research

Ungar, M. (2019). Change your world: The science of resilience and the true path to success. Canandaigua, NY: Sutherland House.

Walsh, F. (2011). Family resilience: A collaborative approach in response to stressful life challenges. Resilience and mental health: Challenges across the lifespan, 149-161.

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