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22 Sep 2022


In family science, theory is a useful tool that provides a framework to understand family experiences and create resources or interventions that promote individual and family functioning. However, trying to understand theory and how it can be applied to families’ everyday lives – either by families or by others working on their behalf – can be an intimidating task. Thus, Military REACH wants to help break down common family science theories into more digestible terms. In this piece, we will provide an overview of the ABC-X Model of Family Stress, connect the theory to military family experiences, and suggest how families can use knowledge of the theory to understand and adapt to their experiences.

ABC-X Model of Family Stress Overview

Hill’s (1958) ABC-X model of Family Stress is a framework for explaining the processes through which families respond to stressful events and the resulting outcomes for family well-being. The ABC-X model can be broken down into four key components: (A) the stressor event, (B) family’s resources, (C) family’s perception of the stressor, and (X) crisis (Price at al., 2021; Weber, 2011).

ABC-X Model of Family Stress (Hill, 1958)
  • The Stressor Event. Stressor events are events that bring about change in the family. They can include both positive (e.g., birth of a new child) and negative life events (e.g., loss of job) that trigger familial stress. Stressors can also be either normative (i.e., common experiences, such as the death of a loved one or moving residence) or non-normative (i.e., unusual experiences, such as a natural disaster).
  • Family’s Resources. Resources can buffer a stressor’s effects on the family’s ability to cope with it. Resources may lay within individual family members (e.g., financial, educational, health, psychological resources), the family system (e.g., emotional bonds between family members), and/or the community (e.g., religious organizations, schools).
  • Family’s Perception of the Stressor. A family’s perception of a stressor event can also buffer the event’s effects on the family’s ability to cope. If a family perceives a stressful event more positively (i.e., something they can overcome), it may adapt to the stressor successfully. For instance, a family who believes it can solve any problem together may be more likely to adapt positively to the news that it has to relocate for work. Alternatively, families who perceive a stressful event more negatively may struggle to adapt. For example, in this case, the family may react to news of relocating for work by avoiding the necessary preparations for moving, which can lead to poor adaptation to the new community after the move. Families’ interpretations of stressful experiences also differ across cultures and value systems.
  • Crisis. Crisis occurs when a family is unable to adapt positively to the stressor that brought about change within the family. This change then disrupts family boundaries and roles, as well as individual physical and psychological well-being. For example, after the death of a loved one, family members may struggle to cope with grief. While most family members can return to a sense of normalcy after a while, some people are at risk of complicated grief, meaning their emotions do not improve over time. One or more family members experiencing complicated grief following the stressful experience of losing a loved one is an example of a crisis.

It’s worth noting that experiencing change does not automatically guarantee a family will enter into a crisis. Stress is a normative result of change. We all go through it. Only when we feel the disruption so severely that we could enter a state of crisis do we need further help from family, friends, and community.

ABC-X Model and Military Families

Military families are no strangers to change and can face a variety of stressors from both military-specific and civilian experiences.

Common Military-Specific Stressors
- Frequent relocation for permanent changes of station (PCS)
- Traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, limb loss, combat exposure
- Barriers to spousal employment
Common Civilian Stressors
- Divorce
- Death of a loved one
- Mental or physical illness
- Financial problems

Thankfully, military families have access to a variety of resources to help take control of their circumstances. These resources, paired with the family’s perception of the stressful experience, can help the family adapt and avoid a crisis.

Examples of resources and perceptions that positively influence military families’ response to a stressful event

- Counseling services
- Parenting programs
- Military community support
- TRICARE health insurance
- Spousal employment programs
- Mission-oriented mindset
- Nationalism/sense of duty
- Family framed as a team
- Celebrating new opportunities
Implications of the ABC-X Model for military families

What can military families do to apply the ABC-X Model of Family Stress to their lives? The ABC-X Model highlights the importance of drawing on your family’s strengths and using your resources to allow you to adapt and overcome when faced with a stressful experience. Equally important is your family’s framing of the stressful event. Is it debilitating – something you cannot overcome? Or is it an opportunity for you all to build resilience and come out stronger than before?

Here are some questions to consider when stressful events arise. They may help you and your family think through your resources and perception of the event so you can proceed accordingly:

  • What stressful experience has triggered change in my family?
  • What’s the meaning behind this stressful experience? Why was it stressful?
  • Does this stressful experience have long-term consequences for my family?
  • Does this stressful experience present new opportunities for my family to grow?
  • What steps can my family take to reduce this stress in the short and long term?
  • To whom can my family go for support?
  • What resources does the military offer for families facing this type of stress?

The ABC-X Model shows us that supporting families through stress is a multifaceted process requiring access to support and positive perceptions of the stressful event in order for the family to overcome stress together. If your family experiences a change that causes stress, be aware of the resources available to you. Discuss the change with your family members, as well as how to frame the change as an opportunity to grow and/or achieve a common goal.

To learn more about the resources available for military families experiencing a wide range of stressors, check out Military REACH’s Community Connections page.

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