Family Stress theories and risk communication to evaluate and build family resilience

Tatjana M. Hocke-Mirzashvili, James Madison University
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Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2014 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


In this activity, students use theoretical knowledge about family stress theories to analyze family vignettes. After discussing each family's level of normative and non-normative stressors, the students make predictions about the level of risk or resilience each family might have should a natural disaster occur. Additionally, each student group proposes risk communication strategies to increase family preparedness. These applications are then integrated with risk communication literature.

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Learning Goals

The goal of this session is to:
  1. Experience a variety of family stress levels through case analysis and application of theoretical knowledge. This will also enhance group work.
  2. Better understand key publics and how to communicate with these about natural disaster risks.
  3. Create risk communication strategies based on these individual cases.
  4. Integrate risk communication strategies from class with those proposed in the risk communication literature. Goals 2-4 should develop critical thinking skills, data analysis, and inductive and deductive reasoning.
At the end of this session, the students will have a greater appreciation for the variety of family situations that influence the individual level of resilience in case of a natural disaster. Based on their improved understanding of key publics (families), the students will learn to more effectively communicate in the pre-crisis phase. The students will learn an appreciation for the value of preparedness as a means to address family risks and increase resilience. In subsequent sessions the students will be introduced to the scientific knowledge about natural disaster and practice communicating complex scientific knowledge to lay publics.

Context for Use

This session is completed early in the semester. The students will have learned about crisis definitions and crisis life-cycles (pre-crisis, crisis, post-crisis). After this general overview, the class will spend in-depth sessions exploring each of the three life-cycles of a crisis. During the pre-crisis phase, risk communication, preparedness, and issues management are most essential. The following exercise is part of the risk communication module of the class.

In the prior class, family stress theories were discussed, specifically focusing on Boss (2002) contextual approach to family stress and the double ABC-X model. In class we discussed the differences between "risk" conceptualized in family stress theories, "risk" in communication studies, and "risk" from a scientific perspective. Special emphasis was placed on the power of an individual's risk perceptions to motivate action. However, as people rarely experience natural disasters in isolation, family stress theories were introduced to better understand how publics make sense of stressors in everyday life as well as in traumatic situations.

Description and Teaching Materials

The class will be divided into four groups. All students will have read the family profiles. In each group the students will now work together and answer the questions for their specific vignette. Each group will share the results with the class. The class will discuss the vulnerabilities of each family and the potential risks each family might face in case of disaster. To increase family resilience, each group will share risk communication strategies. After discussing the potential usefulness of the communication strategies proposed, the instructor integrates the finding into risk communication literature and best practices. The students will review this literature in preparation for the next class.

Family Vignettes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 141kB Apr10 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

It is helpful for the students to use the family vignettes to understand the multifaceted situations families face when disaster strikes. The students should be encouraged to bring in their personal experiences and reactions to the family profiles. Effective communication is built not only on understanding the subject matter (natural disasters) but especially understanding the situation the key publics are facing.


At home, write a short reflection paper discussing the usefulness of these models and risk communication as you have observed it either in your own family, a family you know well, or in a family presented in the media. Select the one option you feel most comfortable with and describe the following:
  1. What type of a non-normative stressor or natural disaster did the family face?
  2. Using both the contextual approach to family stress and the double ABC-X model, explain the impact of the stressor.
  3. Do you recall any risk communication? Evaluate what you remember using the guidelines discussed in class.

References and Resources

Boss, P. (2002). Family stress management. A contextual approach (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (Chapter 3)

Covello, V. T. (2003). Best practice in public health risk and crisis communication. Journal of Health Communication, 8, 5-8.

Figley, C. R. & Barnes, M. (2005). External trauma and families. In P. C. McKenry, & S. J. Price (Eds.), Family & Change. Coping with stressful events and transitions (3rd Ed., pp.379-402). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McCubbin, H., & Patterson, J. (1983). The family stress process: The double ABCX model of family adjust- ment and adaptation. Marriage and Family Review, 6(1–2), 7–37.

Renn, O. (2010). Risk communication: Insights and requirements for designing successful communication programs on health and environmental hazards. In R. L. Heath & H. D. O'Hair (Eds.), Handbook of risk and crisis communication (pp. 80-98). New York, NY: Routledge.

Reynolds, B., & Seeger, M. (2014). Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication 2014 Edition. CDC.

Witte, K. (1994). Fear control and danger control: A test of the extended parallel process model (EPPM). Communication Monographs, 61, 113-134.