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Treating PTSD: Natural Disasters, Sexual Abuse & Combat
Treating PTSD: Natural Disasters, Sexual Abuse & Combat

Section 26
How a Parent’s PTSD Affects Children

CEU Question 26 | CE Test | Table of Contents | PTSD
Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs, Nurse CEUs

Young people who grow up in families in which someone has chronic PTSD often don’t know what it is like to be raised by a parent without PTSD because they have never had that opportunity. They may come to accept the intrusive thoughts, avoidance symp­toms, and hyperalertness they often see in both parents as a normal way of life. As these children grow older, they sometimes have a feeling that something is wrong with their parent and in their family, but often they aren’t quite sure what it is.

Whether a parent’s post-traumatic stress disorder has been long-term or is fairly recent, their PTSD can affect their children in many ways. It is important to know that not all children are affected in the same way. One reason for this is that, as we learned earlier, not all parents who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder have it to the same extent. Their symptoms may vary from those other people have after experiencing the same trauma. For example, some combat veterans become violent when they are angry, but 50 percent of them do not. Some are so troubled by their PTSD symptoms that they cannot hold a job. Others are quite successful and manage to hide their PTSD symptoms. They may be cold and distant to their children, but never raise their voices to them in anger.

The experiences of children differ as well. One child in a family can be affected to a great extent from a parent’s PTSD while a brother or sister may hardly be affected at all. The relationship between each brother and sister and the parent is a different one. Some children may also have coping skills in the face of stress that work better than those of their brothers and sisters.

Children living with a parent who has PTSD some­times:
• Grow up with a sense of shame, especially when the parent’s trauma has been kept a secret from them • Feel angry at what- or whomever caused the trauma if they know what happened to their parent, but feel helpless to do anything about it • Feel angry at their parent and then feel guilty for feeling angry • Resent having their lives controlled by a parent’s trauma, something that didn’t happen to them and isn’t their fault • Sometimes feel invisible because the parent’s problems always seem to take center stage • Feel neglected because they often don’t get their emotional needs met • Have low self-worth from accepting blame for causing a parent’s symptoms • Are exhausted from trying to take care of their parent’s emotional and physical needs • Feel jumpy and nervous much of the time, but aren’t sure about the cause of their anxiety

Living with PTSD is no fun, even when you aren’t the one with the disorder. The specific symptoms of PTSD that make life so difficult for some trauma victims can make their children’s lives difficult as well. Take a few moments to review the symptoms of PTSD and imagine what kind of effect each symptom would have on your ability to love and nurture a child.

Intrusive Symptoms
Obsessive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks often cause a parent’s attention to be far away from the family. It is as if that person is stuck in the past and unable to live or love or have feelings in the moment. A parent with PTSD may be physically present, but their thoughts and feelings are stuck in another time and place. When a child tries to talk with a parent struggling with intrusive symptoms, that child may be brushed aside or otherwise ignored.

The fear, grief, and rage that are often triggered by dreams and flashbacks don’t always make sense to someone who hasn’t been through the trauma and doesn’t share memories of that trauma with the victim. When Carlos’s dad blows up at his son for making too much noise, he’s reacting to something that happened years ago. In the jungles of Vietnam, soldiers who made too much noise attracted the enemy, putting their own lives and the lives of their fellow soldiers at risk. His dad’s rage is bewildering and frightening to Carlos. He blames himself for causing his father’s feelings and his temper tantrums. Because parents with PTSD have little or no control over when intrusive symptoms will arise, they often feel as though their lives are completely out of their control. The lives of the people they live with seem out of control as well. Many times it is impossible for a child to predict how a parent with PTSD will act at any given time or in any given situation. For this reason children whose parents have PTSD often find it hard to trust their parents and the world around them—they never know what will happen next.

They may resent that most of their time and energy is spent going from crisis to crisis, provoked by a parent’s intrusive PTSD symptoms. Sometimes it may appear as if the whole family spends all of its time taking care of the parent with PTSD—calming them down, making excuses to others for their behavior, doing the day-to-day jobs around the house that the person with PTSD can’t handle because they are too emotionally troubled to do them.

Avoidance Symptoms
Because a parent with PTSD tries to avoid anything that will remind him or her of the original trauma, the whole family may avoid many activities that other families enjoy. The Fourth of July, a time when most people are celebrating, is one of the worst times of the year for Carlos and his family.
A parent with PTSD may feel uncomfortable being among people and refuse to go places where there may be crowds. One who has survived a bad automobile accident might refuse to drive anymore, putting an end to a child’s afterschool activities. Potential triggers that are avoided can range from minor to major ones, and children who grow up with a PTSD-plagued parent may constantly try to keep his or her parent protected from reminders of what happened so long ago. For Carlos this often feels like he’s walking across a field of hidden landmines. If he takes one step in the wrong direction, his dad will explode.

As we mentioned earlier, people with PTSD often blame others for triggering their intrusive symptoms and the storm of uncomfortable emotions that accompany them. Many times they blame their families, including their children, for all their other troubles that are caused by avoidance. Carlos’s dad says he could keep a job longer if his wife just didn’t nag him. He claims he keeps moving the family from house to house because she’s never happy with where they live. The fact that he quits his work and moves so often is all her fault, he says. The war has nothing to do with it.

Sometimes the whole family tries to avoid thinking about the original trauma that started causing their loved one so many problems. Not only do family members accept the blame for a parent’s or partner’s PTSD symptoms, but they may deny that anything is wrong with the parent or the family. The trauma often becomes a shameful family secret because of this tendency to avoid and deny the real problem. Carlos’s dad won’t talk about many of his experiences during the Vietnam War with anyone. Nobody in the family ever questions him out of fear their questions will make him upset. A parent’s refusal to talk about what happened so long ago, and a family’s refusal to acknowledge why that parent is so difficult to live with, causes kids to feel shame. And sometimes they have no idea what they feel so ashamed of. They sense that their family is different, but they aren’t sure why.

Parents with PTSD use psychic numbing to avoid thoughts or memories of their original traumas. Often they feel cold and distant from everyone, especially their partners and children. Carlos’s dad has never told him that he loves him. He doesn’t ask about how Carlos is doing in school and doesn’t seem to care about anybody else’s feelings but his own. It is no wonder that Carlos has such problems feeling good about himself.

Parents with PTSD don’t deliberately set out to emotion­ally hurt their children, but often their problems get in the way of providing those children with the emotional support and closeness that they need. As a result, children whose parents have PTSD may feel unloved. In time they may come to believe that they are not worthy of being loved. Their shame about being part of a family with a secret is intensified because they feel unworthy of being loved by anyone.

Hyperarousal Symptoms
When a parent with PTSD is on edge all or most of the time, the people they live with tend to be anxious as well. Sometimes the edginess comes out in the form of being overprotective. A parent who witnessed or was involved in a fatal car crash might be reluctant to let his or her kids ride in a car and later may forbid them to get a driver’s license. A mother who has been raped may be so frightened for her daughter when she begins dating that she forbids her daughter to have a social life. A father whose brother committed suicide as a teenager might get nervous every time one of his kids is alone in their room. He might make a rule that the doors to their rooms must be open and check up on them frequently, violating their need for privacy. Overprotectiveness like the examples discussed above, causes both children and young adults to be resentful.

People who are frequently jumpy and irritable because they have PTSD often don’t like to be around other people. They may isolate themselves in an attempt to keep calmer. Often their families become isolated, too. Carlos, when he was younger, could never have friends over to play at his house. Now that he’s older, he doesn’t even ask his parents if other kids can come over, He would be too embarrassed to have them witness his father’s unpredictable outbursts. Carlos’s mother has few friends because all of her time is taken up by Carlos’s dad. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents from both sides of the family have stopped visiting because Carlos’s dad never seemed happy to see them.

The loneliness that comes from isolation only adds to the self-blame and shame that children often feel when a parent has PTSD. Their isolation sometimes makes them feel that their mother or father is the only person in the world who acts this way and that their family is the only one struggling with the problems caused by trauma. Only when they realize they are not alone can they reach out for help.

- Porterfield MA, Kay Marie; Straight Talk About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Facts On File: New York; 1996

Personal Reflection Exercise #12
The preceding section contained information about how a parent’s PTSD affects children.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 26
How do the avoidance symptoms of a parent with PTSD create a "shameful family secret"? Record the letter of the correct answer the CE Test.

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Treating PTSD: Natural Disasters, Sexual Abuse & Combat

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