Like alcoholism, I think of PTSD as a family disease. Already, I’ve seen it take root in my young family as PTSD continues to haunt my veteran husband. Unfortunately, though, few studies have focused on veterans’ spouses, and even fewer have explored the ways parents’ PTSD affects their children. This is an issue that needs and deserves more attention because trauma can also be intergenerational, a sickness that gradually infects the whole family.
Parents’ PTSD Symptoms and Their Children
When parents have PTSD, their symptoms don’t play out in a vacuum. They affect everyone around them, and children are no exception. Some of these symptoms present unique challenges for children and the people taking care of them.
When parents with PTSD have flashbacks, their kids don’t always understand what’s happening. They don’t know what mom or dad is reacting to. Sometimes children worry about their suffering parent or whether or not they’ll get taken care of.
I try to protect our four-year-old from witnessing his dad’s re-experiencing. Fortunately, these episodes usually happen after he’s gone to bed at night, but he does know that sometimes Daddy feels angry or sad because he used to be a soldier. Even as a preschooler, I think he needs to know something.
According to Tom Babayan, a licensed marriage and family therapist at UCLA, we need to explain the other parent’s behavior to our kids, not what happened to traumatize that parent. Kids’ brains are designed to stay rooted in the present moment. My little boy wants to know what’s up with his dad right now, not what happened 15 years ago. He doesn’t need to know what happened 15 years ago. All he needs to know is that Daddy is remembering bad things, but everything is going to be OK.
A lot of times kids are asking less about what actually happened, and more about the present moment; they’re concerned about who’s going to take them to baseball practice. Parents can imagine what’s important to a child–and if they aren’t sure, explore it.Tom Babayan
Avoidance behaviors in parents with PTSD are especially difficult for children to handle. These are behaviors people with PTSD use to avoid being reminded of their trauma and may include attempts to stay away from crowds or numb themselves emotionally, and sometimes families work together to facilitate these behaviors so their veteran doesn’t have to re-experience her trauma. One person’s burden becomes the whole family’s to carry.
I think emotional avoidance can be especially damaging for young people when parents with PTSD start self-medicating. My husband’s panacea-of-choice when it comes to numbing emotional pain is very large amounts of very strong alcohol, and I think we’d agree this has caused more problems than any of his other coping mechanisms. Sometimes he drinks so much he can’t be a dad, or we start fighting and arguing. Our little boy recently let me know how this makes me feel.
“When you guys fight,” he sobbed, his tiny face wet with tears, “it makes me sad. It freaks me out.”
This was a humbling moment for me, an incentive to let go of my pride for the night and detach myself from my hurting veteran until he could sober up. There’s no point in engaging with someone who probably doesn’t even know what he’s saying, especially if it harms the person I love the most.
Whether they’re self-medicating or not, parents with PTSD often go numb. Depression, anxiety, and dissociation can contribute to emotional numbing, or our spouses may seem disconnected because they’re re-experiencing their trauma. We need to remember that we don’t always know what’s happening in someone else’s head.
Parents with PTSD can have a difficult time feeling even positive emotions, so sometimes it’s easier to feel nothing at all. Getting close to them can be challenging and confusing, especially for children. At the end of the day, though, what really matters is that our kids feel reassured that they are loved, no matter what else is going on. Emotional numbing isn’t something parents with PTSD choose for themselves or their children. It’s a symptom of a disease.
Parents with PTSD have hyperarousal symptoms. so they might seem angry or worried much of the time. Hyperarousal can even make someone act violently.
There are times my husband will get irritated with our little boy all day long, and now I know he isn’t doing it on purpose or to be malicious. For me, this is a major sign that my veteran is struggling with his PTSD.
Most of the time, there isn’t much I can do about it except try to not aggravate the situation even more. I don’t have to vilify my partner or take his behavior personally just because of the way it makes me feel. It isn’t about me. Instead, I try to keep our child busy for a while and give my veteran the time and space he needs to calm down and center himself again.
The self-perceptions of a veteran parent with PTSD can influence the way he raises his children. One study showed that he’s more likely to get fixated on safety, negative evaluations of his kids, and his shortcomings as a dad. Many veterans feel like unworthy parents and have a difficult time connecting with their children.
A meta-analysis of 27 studies suggested that parents’ PTSD may increase parenting stress and negative parenting practices while lowering parenting satisfaction and the quality of parent-child relationships. According to these researchers, more research is needed to understand how PTSD can change the way people raise their kids.
How Parents’ PTSD Affects Their Children
The effects of parents’ PTSD on children varies, but studies have shown some patterns in how this disease impacts the sufferer’s children and how they respond to PTSD symptoms. One study found that children of parents with PTSD experience more withdrawal, neuroticism, somatic complaints, stress, problems with thinking and focusing, internalization, delinquency (especially among boys), and aggression. However, the ways parents’ PTSD impacts their children go even deeper than that.
Studies have noted behavioral issues in children of parents with PTSD. For example, compared to teenage children of non-veteran dads in one study, teens whose dads were vets tended to have worse attitudes towards their fathers and school, experienced more sadness and anxiety, and expressed less creativity.
Other studies suggest children of veterans with PTSD also have more interpersonal issues and problems at school. Their parents describe them as more sad, anxious, aggressive, and hyper than children of vets without PTSD. If there’s violence in the home, there’s an even greater chance kids will engage in violent behavior.
Sometimes children copy their parents’ behavior. For instance, my son tends to yell when he’s angry. According to experts at the Office of Veterans’ Affairs, this might be an attempt to connect with his dad. Or this might be one of the few ways he knows how to deal with his anger because, unfortunately, that’s what he’s been taught by both his parents.
As they get older, children raised by parents with PTSD sometimes develop mental health disturbances, substance abuse disorders, and problems with thinking about or even attempting suicide. As parents, dealing with these issues gets even more difficult if we’re already struggling with our spouses’ mental health problems, let alone our own.
The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma
Every once in a while, kids develop PTSD as a result of their parents’ condition. This has been observed in Holocaust survivors’ and PTSD-diagnosed combat veterans’ families. Some children of parents with PTSD experience secondary traumatization from witnessing their parents’ struggles or instances of domestic violence. These symptoms get worse when there isn’t another adult present to help the child deal with his or her pain and talk about what’s happening in the family.
When children of parents with PTSD don’t get the opportunity to express their feelings, studies show they often have problems in school, relationship issues, and emotional difficulties. This is why I’ve tried to teach our son how to talk about what he’s feeling. Sometimes after one of his dad’s episodes that he may not have seen but I know he heard, I simply ask him how it made him feel and help him find the right words.
As parents and spouses, we can’t cure PTSD and the effect it has on our families, but we can make sure the most vulnerable people in our lives aren’t silenced. We can help them dress their wounds by helping them understand PTSD and what it can do to people.
What We Can Do For Our Kids
As spouses and parents, we are far from powerless. When our veterans’ PTSD seems to take over our lives, we can’t make it go away, but there are things we can do for our children to soften the impact it has on them.
- We can educate ourselves about how parents’ PTSD can affect their children. This way we have some idea of what we can expect, and we can make an educated guess at what our kids might need from us when they encounter problems.
- Encourage our kids to talk about the situation and how it makes them feel. This is probably what our children need from us more than anything else. They need help processing their experiences, a daunting enough task for an adult, let alone a child.
- Do what we can to keep the peace. This isn’t to say we have to put up with abuse, but sometimes holding back and letting someone else be wrong is worth the payoffs.
- Explain to our kids why mom or dad is having a difficult time, but keep it age-appropriate. Assure them it isn’t their fault.
- Make sure your kids know that both parents love them. Mom or Dad feels distant because they’re sick, not because they don’t care.
- Stop trying to control everything. We can’t force anyone to recover from anything. All we can do is work on ourselves, be available to our loved ones, and facilitate an environment where everyone can feel safe.
- Some families might want treatment, whether it’s for the parent with PTSD, the children, or the whole family.
- Take care of ourselves. Everyone around us may be experiencing problems, but chances are, so are we. We need to be sure to take care of ourselves as lovingly as we take care of everyone else. After all, our people need us.
- Don’t underestimate yourself as a parent and spouse. Study after study shows that what your children and your spouse need the most is you.
The first step in living with and helping a loved one with PTSD is learning about the symptoms of PTSD and understanding how these symptoms may influence behavior.Matthew Tull, professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder
Parents with PTSD don’t want to do the things they do or watch their children suffer as a result. These veterans aren’t sick on purpose and don’t deserve to be condemned. However, as spouses, we deserve to be able to tell our truth and protect ourselves, and so do our children. We deserve to be seen and heard. Fortunately, we can find a way to do that in love so everyone has the chance to heal.