How to Use a Family Stress Theory to Manage Setbacks

Updated October 15, 2022
stressed out young mother sipping on a cup of coffee on her messy bed

As much as you and your family might try to avoid stress, no one is immune. So all of us learn to adapt. You make a u-turn and accept that you will arrive late to soccer practice because your kiddo realized they left one cleat under their bed. You make PB&Js for dinner when you realize your child has used the macaroni noodles for a school project. You create a morning routine that no one follows and you barely make it out the door on time. All of these elements revolve around stress.

One way to learn more about which difficulties are causing your family stress is to look at the family stress adaptation theory. This theory explains how families adapt to stressors, as well as how they perceive these stressful events. After you learn more about what causes your family stress, you can begin to use coping mechanisms to help your family relax and maintain healthy relationships during challenging times.

Family Stress Adaptation Theory

The family stress adaptation theory was developed by a psychologist named Reuben Hill in 1949. He designed the theory after studying how families were affected by separations and reunions after World War 2. He then used the information he had gathered to break down the elements that contributed to and resulted in a family crisis.

He discovered a pattern in these elements and behaviors, which lead to the creation of Hill's ABC-X Model. The model describes a list of variables that can either gradually build up and lead a family to experience a crisis, or which can reflect a family's resilience if they have enough stress buffers to help them cope. While many psychologists have created variations of Hill's theory over the years, his family stress theory still remains the most well-known.

Hill's ABC-X Model involves several key aspects and each affects how it is used in the family stress adaptation theory. Each aspect is attached to a letter.

A: The Event

In Hill's model, the letter "A" refers to the event that causes a family some sort of stress. This event can be anything that impacts the family's dynamic, available resources, or regular day-to-day environment.

Stressful events can be both big or small. For example, some big stressful events might be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or serious illness or injury. Some smaller stressful events might be running late for school, dealing with burnout from work, or planning a surprise birthday party.

Families are faced with many different stressors each day, both big and small, that can impact the way they interact with each other. And different families might experience different types of stressors depending on their situations.

B: Available Family Resources

Hill noted that nearly every family has access to some type of resources that act as protective factors against stressors. These resources can act as stress buffers and make the stressful event seem more manageable or easier to cope with. He labeled these factors as "B" in the model.

Available family resources is a broad term for any elements of a family's life that offer some kind of support or make things just a bit easier. For example, this can include things like having a strong social circle, caregivers having a savings account or a steady job, and being a part of a church or religious community. It can also include living next to family that can help watch the kiddos while the parents take a much-needed break.

If it helps your family cope with stress, it's part of your available family resources.

C: Family Perception of the Stressor

The "C" factor in the model refers to the shared family beliefs and perceptions of the stressor. Hill suggested that the way a family perceived a stressful event impacted whether they were able to cope or if the stressor would lead to a family crisis.

For example, if families perceived stressful events in a positive or constructive way, then they would be better able to cope with the difficult event. On the other hand, if families believed that the negative event was extremely stressful or dwelled on the negative impact they would have a more difficult time coping with it.

X: The Outcome and Likelihood of a Family Crisis

The "X" factor at the end of Hill's theoretical model refers to the outcome of how A, B, and C all work together. How these different elements interact determines whether a family will experience a crisis or be able to manage the difficult situation.

How to Use the Family Stress Theory

Hill's ABC-X Model is not a simple addition and subtraction equation. The various elements can have different effects on the outcome. In addition, the importance of those effects can also vary from family to family depending on their different dynamics and what is most supportive and impactful to them.

You can use the family stress model to develop a better understanding of how your family responds to and perceives stressful events. It can also help you reflect on the coping resources you have available that may be able to help your family when you face a challenge.

Analyze Stressful Events

The ABC-X Model begins with a stressful event that impacts your family in some way. You might not be able to predict every stressor that comes your way, however, you might have a good idea of some of the more common ones that your family faces.

One way to build a fuller picture of what events cause you and your family stress is to make a list. You can reflect on some of the past challenges that caused your family stress and analyze them to see if you notice any patterns. Does your stress usually revolve around time management? Financial stress? Busy schedules?

You can use your list to mentally prepare yourself and your family for common stressors. For example, if time management often causes your family stress, you might find it helpful to establish a routine or set a departure time an extra ten minutes than you usually do to help prevent the stress of being late.

List Your Resources

What resources do you have available to you that might support you when you are stressed? Maybe you have a good friend you can call and vent to or a reliable babysitter that can give you a night off to unwind. You might be a part of a book club, church, or social circle that can help shift your attention from any stressors.

Create a list of all of the resources that you have available. These can be coping strategies that you already use and that work for you, activities that you enjoy, or people in your life that help relieve stress in one way or another.

Then, the next time that you are confronted with stress, try and utilize some of the resources that you listed. You can also have other members of your family create a list of coping resources that work for them, as well, because you might all benefit from different elements and have slightly different resources available.

Shift Your Perspective

If you notice that your family tends to perceive difficult events in a more negative light, try and shift perspectives to develop resilience. You don't have to ignore the fact that some situations are challenging and only focus on the positives. However, you might find it helpful to not ignore the positives that are present.

In addition, it might be helpful to view the experience as a learning opportunity that can help you and your family prepare for the future. For example, if your kiddo isn't able to play in the soccer game because they misplaced their cleat, you can take the experience as a lesson to pack the soccer bag the night before to make sure that he has all of the necessary supplies.

No one can change their perspective on life or develop coping skills overnight. You and your family might be new to both of those processes, and it's okay if they take some time to develop. You might find that developing coping strategies and managing stress is a lot of trial and error, and that's okay. The more you practice, the better you will become. You're trying your best to help yourself and your family beat stress, and that's all that matters.

How to Use a Family Stress Theory to Manage Setbacks