Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that impacts adults and children. PTSD is experienced by some people after they are faced with a traumatic experience. Symptoms of trauma are experienced in many ways; physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally. The symptoms can affect day to day functioning as well as relationships with others.
The American Psychological Association (APA) describes PTSD for many as reliving the traumatic event through memories that are intrusive, having nightmares or flashbacks. Additionally, people may avoid trauma reminders and experience anxiety which is often debilitating. For individuals that are parents and have symptoms of PTSD there can be direct influences on children.
Parenting is a challenging endeavor. Add stress associated with a traumatic experience and the key features of nightmares, flashbacks, increase arousal, anxiety in addition to anger and sadness, it is no surprise family members would struggle, too. Children are like sponges that pay attention to their parents and rely on them. The United States Department of Veteran Affairs has recognized the impact of PTSD on children. They have focused on veteran’s PTSD symptoms and the influences it has on family, spouses and children. Although the VA focuses on veterans, even if a parent has not experienced war, other traumas can affect the family just the same.
Five ways PTSD in parents may affect children
- Emotionally. Children may be exposed to strong emotional reactions and behaviors that a parent displays. This can lead to a child feeling frightened or confused. A child may also begin to worry about their parent and experience sadness. Furthermore, watching a parent struggling to cope can impact a child’s ability to express their emotions appropriately.
- Developmentally. A parent is a role model and a teacher. In addition to a parent modeling inappropriate ways to cope the may have trouble problem solving. They may feel emotionally numb, unavailable and detach from their family members and children. Therefore, bonding and attachment to a child may be difficult for a parent. This can interfere with a child’s development. Additionally, a parent that avoids situations or people due to their high level of distress can lead to a child missing out on experiences and opportunities.
- Behaviorally. Children may try to step in to protect their parent and take on a role or responsibility that is not meant for them. Children’s emotional distress may affect their behaviors in school and academic performance. Their anger and confusion may be the underlying cause to disruptive behaviors observed in school or at home.
- Interpersonally. Limited emotional support and inconsistent relationships with parents can impact future relationships for children. These patterns can go into adolescence and adulthood.
- Cognitively. Parenting is stressful even without a trauma history. Parents are at higher risk for irritability and poor sleep patterns due to trauma symptoms. This results in parenting behaviors that may become harsher or less involved. Parents may respond quickly to children’s misbehaviors, withdraw from them or coddle. Children may think that their parent does not want to do things with them, does not love them or may get the wrong idea and not understand what is truly happening.
What can a parent do?
- Help a child understand it is not their fault and they are not to blame.
- Education about PTSD is very important. Two recommendations are:
- Book for ages 4-8:Why Are You So Scared? A Child’s Book About Parents with PTSD by Beth Andrews, LCSW
- Book for teenagers: Finding My Way: A Teen’s Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has Experienced Trauma by Michelle D. Sherman, PHD and Deanne M. Sherman
- Seek individual therapy for yourself
- Consider individual therapy for the child. A therapist can assist the child with learning how to cope and to help understand their parents struggle. A therapist can also help a parent explain to a child what is occurring in a child friendly and age appropriate manner.
- Use resources that are available:
Cohen, J.A., Mannarino, A.P., Deblinger, E. (2006). Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents. New York: The Gilford Press.
Written by Erica David, PsyD