As a parent the last thing you want to do is have a negative impact on your child, but if you are struggling with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the likelihood of your child also struggling is very high no matter their age. A child’s perspective is generally ego-centric (viewing life from how it will affect them), and it is very easy for them to misinterpret the parents’ struggle as a reflection of themselves. If you have PTSD, you know that sometimes you can feel as if you’re riding an emotional rollercoaster; guilt, fear, anger, and grief can cycle through one after the other. Also, you can be with your children but kind of ‘checked out.’ You know, you’re there, but not fully there. Your tank is low and you’re doing the best you can. A child may not understand what is going on when receiving what seems like an onslaught of mixed messages. They could fear for their parents well-being, or even develop an assumption that the parent is unable to care for them. Although teenagers are different than children and tend to straddle the line between adult and childlike reactions to trauma or stress, they are no less susceptible to being negatively impacted by a parent suffering from PTSD.
It is very common for people with PTSD to withdraw from social activities or actively avoid places with lots of people such as crowded events, shopping malls, or the grocery store. Children and teens can internalize and interpret this behavior as the parent not wanting to do things with them, or not caring; or perhaps that the parent doesn’t have any interest in them even though the parent may try to indicate otherwise. Symptoms of hyperarousal are one of the hallmark traits of PTSD, this includes high levels of anxiety, and low tolerance for frustration or distress. The person with PTSD may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, may be easily startled, or display an over concern for the safety of themselves and others (the overprotective parent). Frustration and low distress tolerance, basically irritability and a short fuse, often indicate to children/teens that they are not loved by the parent or that the parent is angry, and unavailable. Being self-focused, children will often internally blame themselves for causing their parents upset or withdrawal.
The response to being raised in an environment colored by PTSD can be varied. Some children/teens may take on the role of the caregiver, and feel that they are responsible for the parents’ well-being and safety. This behavior can result in a child/teen that is constantly trying to save and help the parent, and behaves too old for their age making it difficult to fit in with their peers. Others may detach and become emotionally uninvolved, this child/teen gets very little help emotionally and internalizes their distress. This can lead to a variety of mental health and relational problems in adulthood such as anxiety, depression, and a persistent state of fearfulness. Some may over identify with the parent, thus taking on the parents’ symptoms as their own – “I feel this way too.” These children/teens may behave and feel just like the parent, showing many of the symptoms of someone with PTSD.
Current research indicates that children and teens raised by parents with untreated PTSD are at a higher risk for a multitude of problems socially, academically, and relationally. They may have difficulty sitting still through class or concentrating, resulting in poor academic performance or disciplinary action. Having had an emotional rollercoaster (emotional dysregulation) modeled in the home, they are at risk for having interpersonal issues, which can make it difficult to maintain friendships. They are often viewed as more depressed, anxious, aggressive, and hyperactive by their parents, which when combined with perception of the parents’ symptoms can make it very difficult for the child to develop a healthy attachment and connection to the parent; leading to a potential long-term challenges socially and emotionally.
If you are a parent struggling with PTSD there are steps you can take toward creating a healthy home environment and relationship with your child.
Seek help for yourself and your family. Living with PTSD does not have to be permanent. There are evidence-based treatments that have been shown to reduce the symptoms and assist in the healing process. PTSD is NOT a permanent condition when the right help is found! Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one of those treatments. Seeking out a therapy group or a support group can also be very helpful. Educate yourself and read what you can, so you can understand yourself better.
Model emotional intelligence for your child. Be open, ask questions about how your child is feeling, and openly discuss what is happening for you without divulging graphic details. Some examples may be, “When that happened, what was it like for you?” “How did you feel?” Also, you can come back to situations that happened and affirm your child’s experience, such as; “I know I was quite upset last night, I wasn’t mad at you, I was feeling overwhelmed and should have taken a break, rather than be so upset with you.”
Have compassion for yourself and for your child. PTSD is hard to live with.
Talk about what is going on, silence is detrimental to emotional healing. Depending on the age of your child, a conversation can be short, and helps keep the dialogue open for other times when things come up. This helps people feel safe to talk.
Inner strength and resilience is built over time, and through difficult challenges. You can help yourself and your family heal and build resilience, by openly facing the challenges of healing from the trauma’s that occur in life. Being open and proactive brings hope, strength, and courage, and shows your children that what happens in life matters, and what you do about it matters even more! Posttraumatic stress can feel like a very lonely experience of confusion and suffering. Please don’t try to solve it all alone, there is effective, and efficient help, and people who care about you and your family.
As always, if you have questions, aren’t sure if you have PTSD, or are concerned for yourself or your family, please do not hesitate to give us a call at 760-942-8663.
Reannon Kerwood, MA, LMFT 93397
Clinical Associate, Program Coordinator, Coherence Associates, Inc.
760.942.8663 ext 3
San Diego Access and Crisis Line – (888)-724-7240
NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness http://www.nami.org/Find-Support
Triple P: Positive Parenting Program or for a direct provider visit Tiffany's Triple P Page
Finding My Way: A Teen’s Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has Experienced Trauma
PTSD: National Center for PTSD